Radishes can be cooked, wrote Jane Grigson in 1978, but ‘they are rarely eaten with enthusiasm’. If only she had lived longer. I can think of few vegetables that now provoke more enthusiasm than a cooked radish. Where once they tasted like a turnip gone wrong, now they have stylish Korean overtones.
When you bite into a juicy roast radish – bleeding pink juices and sprinkled with coarse salt – it is as if you are experiencing this vegetable anew. It tastes like a modern summer.
It’s not as if there is anything new about radishes. Since ancient times, they have been celebrated as a pick-me-up. Supposedly, radishes formed the staple diet – with onions - of the Egyptian slaves who built the Great Pyramid. This feels hard to believe. There’s not much nourishment in a radish. But I’m guessing the slaves used their radishes as a bit of freshness to alleviate the boredom of bread. In Britain, too, we’ve been nibbling on radishes with bread for over a thousand years. In centuries past, they must have been especially welcome for those who didn’t have access to expensive spices. A radish seems to come loaded with its own store of pepper. The radishes we used to eat in Britain were far closer to a Japanese daikon: sizable peppery roots, whether globe-shaped or long, something you’d slice up rather than pop whole into your mouth. Those familiar baby pink radishes only took off in the late eighteenth century, a fashion adopted from Italy.
The pinkness and freshness of radishes never gets old. As Emile Zola wrote in his 1898 novel Paris ‘Ah! And here’s the surprise, something dainty, some radishes, some pretty pink radishes. Just fancy!’ Compare with Nigella Lawson, another radish fan, who wrote in her latest book Simply Nigella (Chatto and Windus £26) ‘and oh, their pink-cheeked prettiness!’ Nigella’s recipe for roast radishes in that book must have converted many cooks to the idea that radishes do not have to be raw. She halves them, coats them with olive oil, roasts for ten minutes and tosses with salt and chives. The translucent globes look otherworldly, like Japanese porcelain.
Radishes have taken on different connotations: less French, more Asian and Middle Eastern. Once, if you saw a bunch of crisp leafy radishes, you might think only of eating them – following Elizabeth David- with cold butter, coarse salt and baguette. A tangle of raw French breakfast radishes is still a lovely way to start a meal. The best I’ve tried lately were from Natoora: a vibrant bunch, cerise at the top and white at the bottom, with a flavour that was both mild and fiery (£3 from www.natoora.co.uk). Munched with oil and salt, they were sublime. But a second bunch was equally good tucked under some browned chicken legs in a cast iron pan and roasted in the oven until plump and savoury from the chicken fat. I took some of the green radish tops and stirred them in at the end, like spinach. We’re moving on from the idea that radishes mustn’t be tampered with. More unusual varieties are popping up, from the coarse skinned black ones (which have actually been eaten in Britain since the sixteenth century) to bunches of purple, white and gold ‘rainbow radishes’, which positively invite experimenting.
Food writer Sybil Kapoor has been cooking with radishes since the mid 1980s. She worked then at a ‘very hip’ New York restaurant called Jam’s where they would briefly drop radishes into hot water along with a whole selection of other spring vegetables, drain and mix with butter. Kapoor’s buttered radish recipe in Simply Veg (reissued this month from Pavilion, £17.99) is an excellent place to start for anyone anxious about moving from raw radishes to cooked. The blanched crunchy roots are glazed in a pool of melted butter – a soothing side for white fish.
The Ukrainian chef Olia Hercules grew up eating raw radish salads made from chopped radishes, dill, sour cream and tomatoes, a quintessential late spring dish in Ukraine (the recipe is in her wonderful Mamushka, Octopus, £25). She remembers her mum chopping the radishes into a big bowl; the juices stained the cream candyfloss pink. But now, Hercules says, out of nowhere, ‘I’m into cooking them’. She roasts them for twenty minutes before mixing with a vast handful of chopped green herbs. And eats them with great enthusiasm.