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Fabulous Food

LICORICE

•  In warm climates in parts of Asia and the Mediterranean region, a shrubby weed-like plant grows in loamy river bottoms near water. It’s a perennial plant, meaning it comes back every year, and it has purple flowers. It’s a legume, meaning it’s related to beans and peas. But the unique part of this plant is its roots, which are sweet.

•  Because of the sweet properties of the roots, the Greeks named the shrub Glycyrrhiza from their words “glukos” meaning “sweet” (from which we get the word “glucose”) and “riza” meaning “root” (which also gives us the word “rhizome”). The Greek name evolved as it passed into French and then into English to become the word we use today: licorice.

•  Classified as a weed, licorice is one of the most popular herbs in the world. It is about four feet tall with purplish flowers. Spain is the top producer of licorice, but it’s also produced abundantly in countries such as India, Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, and China.

•  The roots are tan or brown, but when boiled and condensed, the resulting syrup is black, and fifty times sweeter than sugar, with a very unique taste. The syrup has medicinal qualities and has historically been used as a cough syrup, a laxative, and a topical anti-viral. It soothes ulcers and digestive ills. King Tut had a supply in his tomb and Napoleon used it so much it turned his teeth black.

•  Today it’s used medicinally as lozenges and cough drops, and is reputedly useful in fighting bronchitis, upper respiratory congestion, and heartburn. It helps stimulate mucus production and loosens sticky phlegm. It also contains a chemical that has anti-inflammatory properties.

•  Carbenoxolone, a compound derived from licorice root, has been used to help healing of peptic ulcers. The disadvantage of this compound is that in about one-third of patients, it raises blood pressure, increases fluid retention, and promotes potassium loss.

•  The primary use of licorice, surprisingly, is in tobacco. Licorice lends a natural sweetness and distinctive flavor to tobacco while also moisturizing the product. It also acts as a bronchodilator, which opens the lungs. It’s used in most cigarettes, pipe tobacco, snuff, and chewing tobacco. It’s estimated that about 90% of the world’s licorice supply ends up in tobacco.

•  Licorice is used by brewers to add flavor and color to porter classes of beers, and the enzymes in the root also stabilize the foam heads produced by beers brewed with it.

•  Thanks to foaming properties of this plant, root of licorice is used in the manufacture of foam for the fire extinguishers.

•  Licorice, anise, and fennel share one common flavor component, anethole. All three plants share a similar taste and smell because of the anethole they contain, but they are unrelated species. Anethole is also found in basil, camphor, and tarragon. The main flavor ingredient in many types of licorice candy is actually anise.

•  In the 1925 film “The Gold Rush” Charlie Chaplin plays a starving miner who boils and eats his shoe for Christmas dinner. The realistic-looking boiled boot was actually made of licorice. It required so many takes to get the scene done that Chaplin reportedly had to be taken to the hospital to be treated for indigestion after the scene was done.