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Two mystery vegetables make for a tasty, pickled salad

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There are teo kinds of myster pickles in this Asian salad.

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Saturday, February 23, 2019

Knowing what’s in your salad can be a useful thing. If for nothing else, it makes great dinner conversation, as long as your friends can handle the ramblings of an enthusiastic, happy botanist. But my students are sometimes reluctant to have lunch with me, because sooner or later they know I will be testing them on whatever plants they are eating. It’s not exactly “playing” with your food: it’s more like studying it.

Here is a marvelous salad I enjoyed recently at our favorite local Japanese restaurant. This salad features shredded fresh radish, a garnish of lettuce and sliced lemon, and two prominent pickled things, which were the main events of the salad.

Now when you go out for Japanese food, you might see the word “oshinko” on the menu. This is a word that refers to mixed vegetables, especially pickled ones, and might include carrots, cabbage, bok choy, cucumber, and sweet potato. There are a wide variety of different offerings possible, and sometimes the pickled vegetables may be served inside vegetarian sushi rolls. This week, there are two mystery plants.

The first, the bright yellow pickle, comes from the same species that gives us the cultivated radish, which is a member of the mustard family. Now, regular old radishes are spherical, or nearly so, about the size of a large cherry. Our first mysterious pickle is a kind of radish, but one that is massive, and much more elongated, sometimes like a long, skinny eggplant, only perfectly white. You sometimes see them in specialty or Asian shops.

They have to cut them up into conveniently sized sections, which is why the served pieces have those angles. In this case, the peeled radish will be pickled with a variety of seasonings, and it comes out bright yellow, and is much less crunchy than a raw radish. A bit vinegary, they are also slightly sweet. Delicious!

The second pickle, which is orange, is a little bit more obscure, for most Americans. It comes from the elongated, slender root of a plant called the “burdock”, and which is a member of the sunflower family. The various species of burdock all have clusters of broad leaves at the base, and with thistle-like heads of purple flowers.

The fruits that they produce are covered with hooked spines, and easily attached to clothing and fur. The skinny roots of this burdock are cleaned off and submersed in various pickling liquids, sometimes getting additional flavors such as turmeric. The pickles I had were salty and had a decided crunch, along with a somewhat unusual, smoky taste.

Both pickle types are very nutritious, and contain plenty of fiber and virtually no calories. If you like your veggies raw, this would be a great way to try them. And everybody needs a little practice with chopsticks, don’t you think?

(Answer: “Taikuwan,” Raphanus sativus; “Gobo,” Arctium lappa)

John Nelson is the curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia SC 29208. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call 803-777-8196, or email nelson@sc.edu .

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