Rediscovered Roots

These uncommon vegetables are short on glamour but rich with culinary possibilities.

By Ellen Ecker Ogden

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Daikon—an undiscovered rootDaikon

Say “radish” to an American gardener, and we think of a crimson ball that grows in the early spring, or the ‘French Breakfast’ radish with a scarlet shaft and white tip. Yet for gardeners of Korean or Japanese heritage, the word is more likely to conjure up images of a long, white cylindrical root, known as daikon, a staple in their cuisine. Cooked, pickled, or raw, daikon is a formidable root vegetable that can reach a length of a foot or more and typically weighs a pound at harvest. Giant varieties, such as ‘Sakurajima Mammoth’, are said to reach as much as 100 pounds.

Daikon (Raphanus sativus) is a fast-growing, cool-season crop that is best sown in spring or fall, as it does not like the heat of midsummer. You might think that in order to successfully grow the enormous daikon, you must first start with deeply dug, loose soil. Not so. In fact, the aggressive taproots of daikon, planted densely as a cover crop, are sometimes called on to break up compacted clay.

Mature roots are sweet and juicy, ideal for an Asian radish salad, chopped with yogurt for raita, or sautéed with fish. The green tops are equally useful and highly nutritious in a salad, or braised along with other bitter greens as a side dish or a stuffing for ravioli. And if you are practicing your knife skills, carving the giant daikon radish can result in interesting vegetable art.

How to grow:

Daikons are not demanding when it comes to soil and can tolerate most conditions. For the longest, straightest roots and ease of harvest, work soil deeply or grow in raised beds. Sow seeds 2 inches apart, directly where they are to grow. Thin the seedlings to stand 4 inches apart. Apply mulch between rows to maintain soil moisture and eliminate weed competition.

Daikons are brittle, so take care when lifting them with a fork or spade. Remove the green tops, wash, and refrigerate. Despite their sturdy appearance, daikons do not store as well as other root vegetables, but will keep for up to 8 weeks in the refrigerator or stored in damp sand at about 32°F. 

Photo: Thomas MacDonald

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