Horseradish is a perennial plant of the Brassicaceae family, which includes mustard and cabbages. This ancient root herb (along with chicory, sow thistle, eryngo, and lettuce; Horseradish is said to be one of the five bitter herbs of Jewish Passover) is a native of Eastern Europe. The Asian version comes from an Asian variety of the plant and is used to make Wasabi or Wasabe. Light green in color when prepared, this is one of the hottest condiments in Asian cuisine. Wasabi is used as a condiment for Sushi and Sashimi when you add a little Soy sauce.
In German, it’s called “meerrettich” (sea radish) because it grows by the sea. Many believe the English mispronounced the German word “meer” and began calling it “mareradish.” Eventually it became known as Horseradish. The word “horse” (as applied in “Horseradish”) is believed to denote large size and coarseness. “Radish” comes from the Latin radix meaning root. The Egyptians knew about Horseradish as far back as 1500 B.C. Early Greeks used it as a rub for low back pain and an aphrodisiac.
During the Renaissance, Horseradish consumption spread from Central Europe northward to Scandinavia and westward to England. However, it wasn’t until 1640 that the British ate Horseradish, and then only by country folk and laborers. By the late 1600s, Horseradish was the standard accompaniment for beef and oysters among all Englishmen. The English, in fact, grew the pungent root at inns and coach stations, to make cordials to revive exhausted travelers. Early settlers brought Horseradish to North America and began cultivating it in the colonies. It was common in the northeast by 1806, and it grew wild near Boston by 1840. It now grows several places including Collinsville, Illinois, known as the Horseradish capitol of the United States.
Although Horseradish can be quite potent, this should not keep you from experimenting with this noble herb. The long tapering cream colored root should be firm with no blemishes or signs of withering. Fresh, it can be refrigerated for several days. To prepare a good sauce, peel about a pound and put it in a blender or food processor, chop until very fine, next drizzle in cider vinegar until a spreadable paste is created, then add salt and a few tablespoons of sugar to taste. Optionally, you may also add a little dry mustard. This mixture will keep for months. You may also substitute beet juice for a different color effect.
Today, 6 million gallons of prepared Horseradish are produced annually in the U.S. — enough to generously season sandwiches to reach 12 times around the world. Horseradish has only 2 calories a teaspoon, is low in sodium and provides dietary fiber.
The leaves of the plant, which while edible aren’t commonly eaten today in urban areas, are referred to as ‘Horseradish greens.’ They are still a welcome part of a rural Southern diet and one of my favorite greens.
In the USA, prepared Horseradish is commonly used in Bloody Mary cocktails, in cocktail sauce, as a sauce or spread on meat, chicken, and fish, and in sandwiches. The American fast-food restaurant chain Arby’s uses Horseradish in its “Horsey Sauce”, which is provided as a regular condiment, alongside ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise.
You don’t want to try to substitute for Horseradish, except in certain circumstances where you might try wasabi powder.