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Daikon radish a late, healthy root popular in Japan

Daikon roots can be three feet long and weigh 100 pounds. (Photo provided)

It’s November. Last week, someone asked me what to do with the white radishes her sister dug up from the garden and given to her.

Radishes come in many sizes and colors. Americans are most familiar with the red-skinned European varieties. Of the many Asian varieties, the daikon is the most common (in the U.S.). Other names include icicle radish, Oriental radish or Chinese radish.

In Japanese, “daikon” means large root — and indeed, this tapered root, resembling a long white carrot, can grow more than 3 feet long and 1 foot across, weighing up to 100 pounds! Generally, they’re harvested at just 1 to 5 pounds, and less than a foot in length.

Crisp and juicy, sweet, sharp and slightly spicy, daikon is a bit sweeter than the common European red radish. The flavor is somewhere between that of a radish and a cabbage. Its taste varies; the thicker area near the top is sweeter, and thus best for grating into salads. Thin strips or chips can be cut with a vegetable peeler or sharp knife for use on relish trays or to serve with a yogurt dip. Store them in ice water to crisp and curl, or simply slice julienne. The bottom of the root is sharper and more pungent; this is best cooked or pickled. Cooking mellows and sweetens the flavor and makes the flesh translucent. Adding a little starch (rice bran, potato or pasta water) mellows it even more.

Both the European red radish and the myriad of Asian radish varieties developed from the same dark-skinned Egyptian ancestor. They reached Japan by way of China more than 2,000 years ago. Today, the radish is the most widely cultivated vegetable on the Japanese islands, where it symbolizes fertility, health and well-being. Each December, daikon festivals are held in many cities, the largest in Kyoto. It adds spice to almost every Japanese meal — cooked in stir-fries and stews, raw in salads, pickled or dried.

Daikon ready for preparation. (Provided photo)

Before refrigeration, daikon was popular because (like other root vegetables) it can stay in the ground until it can no longer be pulled from frozen soil. After that, they can be stored in a cool place, like a root cellar, for four to six months. Traditionally, one-third of the crop was stored in a root cellar, and the remainder was pickled or dried.

In the winter, pickled or dried and reconstituted daikon dishes ensure a source of vitamin C; just one serving provides one-third of the recommended daily allowance for this vitamin. Regular use is said to prevent respiratory infections, including colds and flu.

The pearly white radish is low in calories (18 per 3-ounce serving) and is used in Asia as a weight-loss remedy, because it is said to increase the body’s metabolism. It also aids digestion; phytochemicals in daikon include the digestive enzymes diastase, amylase and esterase. This is why it’s often served as a condiment or garnish with meats, fish and fried or starchy foods. Other phytochemicals have decongestant and diuretic properties. Claims about daikon’s health benefits include increased energy, cleansing the blood and boosting circulation, and anti-carcinogenic properties. It is part of numerous home remedies, used to treat everything from hangovers to edema, sore throats and colds.

Daikon is also important in other Asian cuisines: Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese and Indian. Oriental cooks use the entire plant — the leaves as well as the root.

Finely grated raw daikon is sprinkled with soy sauce and spooned as a garnish over fish, meat or fried foods. It is common in stir-fries and fried rice. It adds spice to Asian slaw, dumplings and egg rolls. That mound of juicy white stuff served with sushi or tempura? It’s grated daikon. That miso soup probably includes daikon, too. The possibilities are endless.

Daikon cake is a delicious, savory dim sum. Also known as Daikon Mochi, the traditional appetizer is made with shredded daikon, rice flour, other shredded veggies and dried shrimp. They can be deep-fried or lightly sauteed in olive oil until browned on each side.

For more Western uses, roast the radish with other root veggies. Add it to soups and stews. Use it in tossed green salads, potato salads, pasta salads or grain salads. Replace some or all of the cabbage with shredded daikon when making your next cole slaw.

With modern agriculture, fresh daikon from Texas and California is available all year long. Look for roots that are fresh, bright white, hard and moist, without cracks, wrinkles, bruises or other blemishes. They should be firm, crisp and heavy for their size. Avoid oversized, pithy or withered daikon; it will have a hot, pungent flavor.

To store, place daikon in a cool place in a sealed container or in plastic, to maintain the humidity and keep it from drying out. To use, rinse under running water; it is not necessary to peel it. Cut-up daikon should be juicy and crisp, like an apple.

Here are a couple recipes to get you started in using this vegetable — the first is American, the second Asian.

Roasted Root Veggies

Makes a nice side for supper, or a lunch dish.

Ingredients:

3 daikon radishes

4 carrots

1 onion

1 apple, optional

2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 teaspoon turmeric, optional

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

– 

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Scrub radishes and carrots. Slice into 1/4-inch-thick rounds.

Peel the onion and slice into thin rings.

Peel, core, and chop the apple, if using.

Combine the daikon, carrots, and onion on a nonstick baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil. Season with salt, pepper and turmeric.

Roast for 15 minutes. Stir in the chunks of apple and roast another 10 to 15 minutes, or until tender.

Drizzle the veggies with balsamic vinegar and return to the oven. Roast for an additional 5 minutes. Toss well, then transfer to a serving bowl.

Serves 4.

Banh Mi — chicken, daikon and carrot sandwich

This is a sandwich made with chicken, daikon and carrots.

Ingredients

1 to 2 cups carrots, julienned (about 2 carrots)

1 cup daikon radish, julienned

1 to 2 Tablespoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 Tablespoons rice wine vinegar

2 teaspoons sesame oil 

2 chicken breasts, cooked and shredded

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

2 scallions, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon fish sauce

1 tablespoon Sriracha

1 teaspoon honey, maple syrup or sugar

Salt and pepper to taste

1 tablespoon corn starch

1/3 cup mayonnaise

2 teaspoons Sriracha

1 baguette, cut into 4 equal pieces

1 jalapeno, seeded and thinly sliced (or some green bell pepper)

Fresh cilantro

 

Directions:

Julienne the carrot and daikon and place in a large bowl. Add sugar, salt, vinegar and sesame oil. Set aside for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.

While that’s going, cook your chicken breasts, cool, and shred. Combine the chicken with chopped cilantro, scallion, minced garlic, fish sauce, 1 tablespoon Sriracha, honey, salt, pepper, and cornstarch.

In a separate bowl, combine the mayonnaise with 2 teaspoons Sriracha.

Open up each piece of bread, and spread the Sriracha mayonnaise on each side. Fill with the pickled carrots and daikon, chicken, jalapenos or green peppers, and cilantro.

Serves 4.

Author of the award-winning cookbook “Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market,” Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at yvonawrite@yahoo.com or on Facebook at words are my world.

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