In a bright shade of peppy pink offset with a crystal white heart, the common spring radish comes in the same colours as many a cloying childhood sweet. Yet their firm, crisp bite, sharp, peppery flavours and simple elegance declare the humble radish to be a very grown-up thing indeed.
Their origin is unclear, but is ascribed to Southeast Asia in some sources, western Asia in others. And while the flamboyant spring radish, known and loved in Europe, may be the most distinctive edition of this root vegetable, it actually comes in a wide range of forms — round, long, tapered, bullet-shaped, oval — and colours — pink, red, purple, black and white. Such differences can also be felt in the flavours, with the long, tapered white radish seen in many Asian markets and dishes, boasting a milder, earthier flavour than its flagrant pink cousin. Some even suggest they should be classified as completely different vegetables.
More commonly known as daikon, this long white radish — often mistaken for a white carrot — can be found all over Asia, shredded over sashimi, pickled in kimch’i, sliced into a banh mi, wrapped up in spring rolls, stirred into stir-fries, mixed into dips, and even used for tenderising octopus. Its ubiquity is unquestionable, thanks to the ease with which it can be grown and the vibrancy it lends to any dish through its bite and piquancy.
By contrast, European radishes were more commonly eaten raw, and for long years consigned to the peasant’s table. From the ancient Roman city of Aquileia, a decorated lamp depicts a basket containing a pitcher of wine, a round of bread and a radish with the legend: “Pauperis cena: pane uniu radic” (Poor man’s dinner: wine, bread, black radish”). And the root steadfastly remained part of the peasant’s diet long afterwards, an incontrovertible mark of one’s social status. The “radish eaters” of Savoy and the Limousin were considered pitiable objects in the 16th century, only comparable to the wretched souls in the Cévennes mountains who had to make do with chestnuts.
This might explain why Mark Twain, during his wanderings around the European continent in 1878, felt compelled to grumble about the dishes he missed most from his American home, starting off his list with ‘radishes’ (though he might perhaps have tried looking harder, or perhaps it was his version of a ‘humble brag’ about the high company he was keeping).
But he was right to miss them. Eaten raw, with nothing more elaborate than a soaking in a good olive oil and a sprinkling of salt, the radish is one of life’s simple yet great rewards. And the sharp bite of a pickled radish (or cabbage, cucumber, carrot, or beetroot) is the brightest foil to an earthy miso soup, or crispy grilled meat marking a glorious start to any day. And you don’t need to wait a long-winter to make your own.
Quick Pickle Recipe1 cucumber
10 spring radishes, quartered
1 tbsp sea salt
1 tbsp fine sugar
150ml rice vinegar
Slice the vegetables into any shape or thickness you desire. The thinner, the more they will pickle, the thicker, the more they will keep their crunch.
Put the salt, sugar, pepper and vinegar into a small bowl and stir until the salt and sugar have dissolved. Divide the mix into two bowls, and put the cucumber into one and the radishes into the other.
Allow to sit for at least half an hour, then serve alongside grilled chicken or pork with rice, or preserve for up to three weeks in a clean jar.