Issue 06: Rhubarb

by thomandaimee

One of the fruits that has been on our experiment list for a long time is the rhubarb. The odd thing is that it is not even a fruit, but a vegetable – almost like celery with its long juicy petioles, or stalks. Just prettier.

With our lack of interaction with the plant, we busied ourselves with books and information, and they all had similar stories. Rhubarb started out as a medicinal herb and was used in China as a drug against constipation. The Victorian English then decided that it was more profitable to start growing their own instead of buying them from the Chinese. First delicious accident: they brought back the wrong type of rhubarb to produce. While they didn’t have medicine, they did have luscious pink stems for pudding. (The leaves, however, are poisonous. Perhaps they could have make use of them.)

The Victorians then went on to bring the rhubarb into the public’s consciousness and bellies. And if they couldn’t even more unlucky, or lucky in this situation – second delicious accident: during the Chelsea Physics Garden, some rhubarb were mistakenly covered by soil (or a upturned bucket) and were later discovered to be more tender and flavoursome. Viola, forced rhubarb was ‘invented’, and are produced in the famous rhubarb triangle in Yorkshire.

Rhubarb is not commonly found in the markets and rather foreign in our local cooking repertoire. The only few we chanced upon were the Australian variety sold in Jason’s, and they were confoundedly expensive. We managed to get ours at a wallet-friendly price from the brilliant grocer Victor (Chia’s Vegetables Supply). The stalks were imported from Europe, but whether they are British or Dutch, forced or outdoor, we are as clueless as the next rhubarb in the shed.

Usually used as part of dessert course, the rhubarb does so comfortably well in pies, crumbles, and compotes. Despite smelling almost like spring onions, the plant tastes like a sharp sour apple – slightly acidic and full of moisture. Its blooms when sweetened with sugar, honey, anise, vanilla or almond. Pair it with some spices or herbs, such as ginger, cinnamon, saffron, rosemary to bring some complexity into the dish. Some might not like rhubarb with other citrusy sour fruits such as lemon and orange, but we tried making a Rhubarb and Lemon tart that gotten plenty of thumbs ups at home.

Rhubarb can also be a great companion in savoury dishes, especially beside oily fishes such as mackerel and herring. My first taste of the rosy pink stems were in fact cooked alongside a fish, it makes for a rounded dish brimming with sweetness, apple sourness, and umami. Another meat that does well with a kick of rhubarb will be pork – its sharp fruitiness can cut through saccharine and salty sauces easily.

With its versatility, its odd how rhubarb hasn’t caught on in Singapore. We hope to be able to grow our very own stems one day… just need to look for more space in our tiny high-rise garden. And the seeds. Then maybe one day, a carton full of jams in the prettiest shades of pink will greet us for tea. A girl can only dream.