Chef and columnist O Tama Carey uncovers the unusual case of rhubarb’s dual identity. This ruby-hued plant with alluring sharpness straddles the border between vegetable and fruit, making it a delicious addition to both sweet and savoury dishes.
By
O Tama Carey

1 Apr 2015 - 11:02 AM  UPDATED 4 Mar 2016 - 9:18 AM

Mistaken identity

Poor, confused rhubarb, it spends most of its life being used as a fruit and cooked with sugar when it's actually a vegetable. This issue of dual identity was even taken a step further by our friends in America who, in the 1940s, took rhubarb to court and changed its classification to a fruit for the purpose of regulations, thus changing the taxes and tariffs associated with it. A little curious to be sure, but most recipes involving rhubarb are sweet and often involve a hefty amount of sugar to balance the inherent tartness of rhubarb.

The other tricky thing about rhubarb is that people often associate it with winter. Its name has become synonymous with cosy crumbles seasoned with warm, sweet spices and served with cream. But rhubarb is a perennial vegetable and is at its best here in Australia in late summer and autumn with a harvest season that lasts for a few months. Meanwhile in the northern hemisphere, rhubarb is one of the first vegetables to appear in spring, but that’s when it’s at its worst down here.

 

Medical history

Rhubarb is relatively new to the culinary scene, only finding its way into the kitchen in the 1800s when it was adopted by America and the UK. Prior to that, rhubarb’s fame came from its medicinal qualities. The plant originated in Asia and has been used widely in Chinese medicine for thousands of years. The root is taken from the rhubarb plant, dried out, used in various ways and is said to have a positive and balancing effect on the digestive system. Its usefulness is wide-ranging and applies to many treatments from a laxative to being used as a tonic for cold sores. Traded along the Silk Road it was seen as such an important commodity that it was compared in value to silks, jewels and other expensive spices. It is still used in medicine today, however, the modern edible variety is slightly different to its Asian ancestor.  

 

Does rain damage rhubarb plants?

The rhubarb plant is from the buckwheat family and is also closely related to sorrel, both sharing that delicious sour flavour. The plants are generally propagated by taking a cutting from the existing plant, known as a crown. Even though the plants produce a seed, it’s not often that they grow true to type. Rhubarb doesn’t like too much sun, needs plenty of water as it has very deep roots and, when healthy, can grow wild like a weed. Interestingly, it is one of only a few perennial vegetables that can continue to grow and be harvested for up to twenty years. 

While the roots have proven themselves useful for medicine, the stalks, which are similar in appearance to celery, are what’s eaten. The stems can range in colour from a pale pink to a dark red and there is also a variety that produces a green stem. Don’t be tricked into thinking that colour corresponds to flavour. Often the green stalks are just as sweet as the red. You are better off choosing rhubarb based on size as older, thicker stems can be woody and tough while the thinner, younger stems are sweeter and can even be eaten raw. So prized are these young stems that in the UK there is a popular practice called ‘forcing’, whereby the first rhubarb plants of the season are grown, covered and deprived of light. This results in tender, pale stems but does leave your poor rhubarb plant weak and susceptible to disease.

While the stalks and roots are widely used, steer clear of the leaves as they contain oxalic acid that not only makes them slightly poisonous but also imbues rhubarb with its tart flavour. Not entirely useless, you can brew the leaves to make an organic anti-bug spray.

 

Rhubarb, rhubarb

The word ‘rhubarb’ contains no clear vowels or harsh consonants and when repeated constantly can be used as a theatrical device to represent background noise. The repetition of the word ‘rhubarb’, spoken almost inaudibly and at different times, originated in early radio play readings and is still a tool used today, although the saying ‘rhubarb, rhubarb’ has evolved to imply nonsense.

Unlike its name, rhubarb is used in many sensible ways in the kitchen. It has a strong tradition in American cooking, most notably in pie making. So much so that Americans refer to it as the ‘pie plant’. Rhubarb and strawberries make for a classic combination, the flavours work so well together, but rhubarb is also a cheaper option to bulk out pie fillings with its red hue blending in with the strawberries. Beyond the kitchen, you’ll often find rhubarb and strawberry plants growing side-by-side, as they do well when planted together.

In British cooking there’s a long history of rhubarb being baked into crumbles, often combined with apples. And the lovely early spring dish of rhubarb fool gently folds stewed fruit through custard or cream. The Brits are also fond of a rhubarb in jams and jellies.

The flowers of the rhubarb plant can be cooked, too, although care must be taken to prepare them, avoiding the stem that, like the leaves, can be poisonous. Similar in appearance to broccoli florets, rhubarb flowers are tart and can be used as you would a vegetable, simply prepared by gently frying or quickly blanched and added to salads.

And, of course, our Italian friends have found a way to turn rhubarb into an alcoholic beverage. Rabarbaro Zucca is an Italian amaro-style (bitter liqueur) drink made with herbs and cardamom. Amaros are generally enjoyed after dinner as a digestif, which makes perfect sense when you remember rhubarb’s history in Chinese medicine. It gives our internal body a sense of balance.

 

Cook with rhubarb


 

 

Rice pudding with rhubarb, pistachio and mascarpone

 

Rhubarb and lentil salad with goat's curd and black olives

 

Rhubarb and rosemary sorbet

 

Chargrilled sardines with slightly pickled mustardy rhubarb

 

 

Photography by Sharyn Cairns. Styling by Lee Blaylock. Food preparation by Rachael Lane. Creative concept by Lou Fay.

 

View previous The Seasonal Cook columns and recipes.