Licorice Root - Gastro Obscura
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Sweets

Licorice Root

The washed and dried root of the licorice plant was once a popular natural “candy.”

Though extracts made from licorice root form the base of many popular licorice candies today, folks sometimes take a bite straight from the source. In Spain, Italy, France, and the Netherlands, chewing on the gnarly brown stick stirs up fond memories for those who grew up eating the natural “candy” before it was overshadowed by more processed forms of its sweetness. 

The root’s Dutch name, zoethout, literally translates to “sweet wood.” This gets to the heart of what makes the licorice plant a beloved ingredient: Its roots and rhizomes hide a flavor that is 50 times sweeter than sugar. A common additive in medicinal tinctures and elixirs, the harvested root front-loads the taste buds with a slightly bitter and medicinal taste, before giving way to a sweet and aromatic sap. Children who grew up chewing the sturdy stick learned to suck the plant for its sweet marrow while spitting out its woody pulp.

However, the rise of candy-making in the 20th century shifted preferences toward licorice-flavored candies in various shapes, sizes, and levels of sweetness (or saltiness, if you’re in the Netherlands or Finland). With chewing the medicinal root falling out of favor, the nostalgic must do some extra work in seeking out the old-timey flavor. Still, the washed, dried root can be found in specialty stores and at farmer’s markets across Europe.

Need to Know

The licorice plant is native to various countries across southern Europe and Asia, but its use as a candy is most prominent in Europe. The dried root can typically be found at markets or at festivals such as England's Pontefract Liquorice Festival. A word of caution: Don't overdo it with the licorice, as overconsumption can have negative effects on your health.

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Contributed by
Dr Alan P Newman Dr Alan P Newman
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