When I lived in Japan, it would often just show up on the doorstep. Long, thick white tubes, often with frilly greens attached. A gift from the neighbors. It would be on the table for breakfast, lunch and dinner — pickled, boiled or grated. Refreshingly crisp like jicama or a juicy apple, it has a mellow, sweet radish flavor. I fell in love. Back in the U.S. I’ve juiced it, spiralized it and dried it. What is this unsung, ubiquitous vegetable that grows like a weed up to 3-feet long? Why, it’s the humble daikon radish — the most delicious, functional, versatile and healthy vegetable you’ve never tried — and the one you can’t wait to get your hands on. Trust me.
Hailing from China and Japan, daikon radish grows year-round. Unlike round, red radishes that can take on a fiery bite, the long, round daikon root is fabulously mild. Not only is it crunchy and so fresh it’s almost bracing, but it should absolutely be a part of your diet to settle your stomach or to treat a cough.
Nerdy herbalists say that eating daikon is choleretic, antimicrobial and increases motility in the upper gastrointestinal tract. That’s just a fancy way to say it’s helpful to the health of your liver, it helps keep diseases at bay, and it can be a big help to digestion. It also has a secretolytic effect on congested lungs, meaning it can help ease coughing for anyone with a temporary cold or chronic bronchitis.
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If your neighbors aren’t leaving daikon on your doorstep, you’ll have to head to an Asian market, health food store or farmers market to buy it. Size doesn’t affect the flavor, but look for firm, unblemished white skin — it may or may not have its green tops attached (but it’s great if they do!) Once you get it home, store the greens separately from the root. Cook the greens within a couple of days as you would spinach or kale or chard — stir-fried with garlic or chopped into a stew.
The root will keep wrapped in the vegetable drawer for at least a couple of weeks — and oh, what it will do in your kitchen! The best health benefits come from raw daikon, so peel it, chop it, and eat it raw — as-is as a snack, in a salad or with a squeeze of lemon and cayenne. Spiralize it and dress it in a vinaigrette like a cold pasta salad. Grate it and spoon it on top of fried tofu, fried chicken or cooked pork to let its subtle pungency cut the richness. Spin it into a smoothie anywhere you’d use cucumber, such as with spinach, apple, and ginger. Pickle it in soy sauce, lemon juice and a bit of honey. If you don’t plan to use the whole radish in one meal, hack off what you want and leave the rest unpeeled and wrapped in the fridge.
While light and crisp when raw, daikon is like a turnip or potato when simmered into soups and stews. Feeling adventurous? Try a simplified version of oden, a popular Japanese winter stew. Simmer dashi or fish broth with soy sauce, sake and a bit of sugar. Add hard-boiled eggs, shiitake mushrooms, large rounds of daikon and tofu. Cook until the daikon is tender to the bite.
Daikon is so versatile it’s even delicious dried into a fragrant vegan jerky. Slice it thinly, sprinkle it with a little salt and let it sweat some of its liquid onto clean kitchen towels for about an hour. Pat it dry and layer it into a food dehydrator or on a lightly-oiled rack in the oven on the lowest setting (180–200°F). Dry for several hours until it’s leathery all the way through. Eat it as-is or toss it with some toasted sesame oil, garlic and ginger.
However you prepare it, that daikon will soon be gone. You may even find yourself leaving it on people’s doorsteps, sharing the love of daikon.