All About Asparagus
Though asparagus used to be a part of the lily family—a distinction shared with aloe, agave, and onion—it has since been kicked off into its own group, Asparagaceae. Some botanists still place the vegetable with these beautiful flowers, but others contend that the DNA structure differs too greatly.
The vegetable has had many names over the years: its current name, asparagus, derives from its Latin and Greek roots, technically meaning to “scatter” (Latin) or “swell” (Greek)—such names reflect the manner in which it shoots from the ground. In the 17th century, it was known as “sparrowgrass,” though the phrase that was restored back to asparagus by the 19th century.
Origin of Asparagus
Asparagus has been enjoyed by many of history’s great civilizations. The first signs of its origin came from a discovery of its seeds in an Egyptian cave, suggesting that hunter-gatherers near the Nile Valley enjoyed the plant as foodstuff over 20,000 years ago. In ancient Greece, the tender stalks grew wild. As societies advanced, the vegetable often appeared on the plates of kings, aristocrats, and military generals. It was the Romans who first devoted resources to harvesting asparagus, and they were a vegetable so beloved amongst the emperors that there was an “asparagus fleet” hired for the sole purpose of fetching them. Other European royalty appreciated asparagus as well—France’s King Louis XIV (1638-1714) built a greenhouse just to harvest the vegetable year-round.
Though most recall the vegetable’s history from a Western lens, it is China producing the majority of the world’s asparagus today. According to 2011 figures from the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, the nation produces roughly 88 percent of the global supply at 72.5 million tonnes. Peru comes in a distant second, accounting for a mere 4.8 percent. Germany, Mexico, Thailand, Spain, and the US are other top asparagus-growing countries. As per India’s APEDA Agri Exchange figures, India’s position in the global market is a dismal 69th, growing just under 6,000 tons.
Availability of Asparagus
Throughout most of India, asparagus is a fickle vegetable: It seldom appears in the market, and when it does, their anemically thin, tender stocks come with a price tag that usually cleans out the wallet. One reason for its lack of availability is its long cultivation: Every new crop takes roughly three years before bearing any asparagus. Farmers needing the land for yearly revenue may not be willing to take a chance on this time-consuming crop.
In India, asparagus is deemed an “exotic” vegetable—a status shared with broccoli, red bell peppers, Brussels sprouts, leeks, and snow peas. A few cooler regions near the Himalayas enjoy this vegetable regularly in the springtime, as their weather permits its growth. Himachal Pradesh is the main asparagus growing state, primarily because of the strong demand from large metro areas like Delhi. Indeed, villages including Chamba, Mandi, and Lahaul Spiti grow thick-stalked green and white asparagus for use in local dishes and to export for revenue. Those living in warmer states shouldn’t expect to find the vegetable any time soon, though they occasionally make their way to upscale expat markets and in five star hotels.
The taste of asparagus is wholly unique. It is grassy—not particularly clean, zesty or bright—but dense and woody. It is not subdued or light, like bottle gourd. Though comparisons to other vegetables don’t do its unique taste justice, the best might be a mix of broccoli’s stalk, cauliflower, and cabbage.
Asparagus’s texture is tender, especially near the tip. In fact, France’s Madame Pompadour affectionately described the this delicate part of the vegetable as “love tip.” Towards the bottom of the stalk, it becomes fibrous and stringy—no matter how many chews, the mouth is left with a mess of pulpy matter that won’t seem to dissolve. It’s for this reason that many chefs remove this portion before cooking.
According to the USDA nutrient database, 100g of edible asparagus contains the following values:
4g Carb (1% RDI)
2.1g Fiber (8% RDI)
.1g Fat (neg)
2.2g Protein (4% RDI)
746IU Vitamin A (15% RDI)
5.6 mg Vitamin C (9% RDI)
1.1mg Vitamin E (6% RDI)
41.6mcg Vitamin K (52% RDI)
.1mg Thiamin (10% RDI)
.1mg Riboflavin (8% RDI)
1mg Niacin (5% RDI)
.1mg Vitamin B6 (5% RDI)
52mcg Folate (13% RDI)
.3mg Pantothenic Acid (3% RDI)
24mg Calcium (2% RDI)
2.1mg Iron (12% RDI)
12mg Magnesium (3% RDI)
52mg Phosphorous (5% RDI)
202mg Potassium (6% RDI)
.5mg Zinc (4% RDI)
.2mg Copper (9% RDI)
.2mg Manganese (8% RDI)
2.3mcg Selenium (3% RDI)
Some of the earliest medical manuals mention asparagus. In 5BC, Hippocrates advised asparagus intake for treatment of diarrhea, dysentery, urinary problems, and toothache. Pliny the Elder suggested in 57 AD that the vegetable be consumed to treat kidney issues, gastric ailments, and as a diuretic and analgesic.
Asparagus had mixed reviews in English folk medicine. In 1705, John Arbuthnot stated, “…[they] have been suspected by some physicians as not friendly to the kidneys.” The vegetable is also associated with a number of unusual superstitions: According to the book, “Dictionary of Plant Lore,” those in Devonshire once believed that transplanting an asparagus stalk resulted in a family death; and wearing its root allegedly results in infertility. Placing a stem in the bed, on the other hand, is good luck.
In Ayurveda, it’s an aphrodisiac often prescribed to boost virility and libido. Contrary to Arbuthnot’s concern, Ayurvedic practitioners may prescribe the vegetable to manage the kidneys and treat diabetes.
Scientific studies mention the following health benefits:
--According to a 1997 study published in Planta Medica, asparagus compounds were found to inhibit the growth of human leukemia cells.
--Another 2008 study published in the Journal of Integrative Plant Biology reveals that steroids isolated from asparagus root showed anti-cancer activities when tested against seven types of human cancer cells.
--A 2009 study published in the Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications found that asparanin A, a compound isolated from asparagus, shows promise as a preventative or therapeutic agent against human hepatoma.
--As per a 2006 study published in the British Medical Journal, asparagus intake boosted the muscle’s glucose uptake by 81 percent, thus affirming sugar-regulating qualities.
--In 2012, scientists at the University of Karachi published their findings in the British Medical Journal showing that asparagus plant extracts suppressed blood sugar levels in diabetes-induced rats. This supports the vegetable’s traditional use as an anti-diabetic agent.
--A 1990 study published in Agricultural and Biological Chemistry found that saponins isolated from asparagus illustrate antifungal activity against Candida, Cryptococcus, and others.
Asparagus is also one of the highest food sources of glutathione, a protein that binds itself to toxins such as heavy metals and pesticide. This is then excreted in the urine, thus proving asparagus to be a true detoxifying agent. The Institute for Cancer Prevention also found that this compound might help ward off some cancers.
Another nutrient present in asparagus is fructooligosaccharides: In the words of a 2013 ScienceDaily.com article, this is a “low calorie, non-digestible carbohydrate that can improve food taste and texture while aiding immunity, bone health and the growth and balance of important bacteria in the digestive tract.
*Note: Asparagus contains purines, a compound known to interfere with some anti-depressant medication. Consume in moderation if taking MAO-inhibitor drugs.
|Rare wild asparagus|
When picking asparagus, look for erect, firm stalks. They should not wilt, sag, or droop. Also inspect the tips—avoid any that are smashed, and they should not be bruised or damaged.
Color may not be the best gauge, as they can come in several hues, from pale green, purple, to white. Indeed, white asparagus is a delicacy grown mainly in Germany. Most of the asparagus making its way into India is, however, the common green-hued types. Even these hand picked spears come at a premium, and are considered a delicacy.
Store asparagus in the refrigerator. Either wrap them in a paper towel, or keep them submerged in a jar of water. Do not wash the vegetables until they are ready for use, as they may spoil otherwise.
Most of the asparagus sold in the market has been cut, washed, and bundled. It doesn’t hurt to give asparagus another cold rinse—as the vegetable pushes its way from the earth towards the sunlight, it naturally collects dirt in its tightly woven tip. As one would with a bouquet of flowers, cut off a portion of the lower stem. This section of asparagus tends to be too fibrous for consumption. Otherwise, no peeling, de-coring, or de-seeding is required.
For its fancy reputation, asparagus is exceptionally easy to prepare. They may be lightly boiled, grilled, sautéed, blanched, or eaten raw. Thin shaves of the vegetable may be used in salads. It’s inadvisable to pressure-cook asparagus, as the texture becomes mealy and the stalk loses its beautiful, vibrant green hue and becomes a sallow, tepid yellow shade.
|These are slightly overcooked.|
Recipe Ideas and Uses
The simplest asparagus recipes are truly the best. When paying such a high price for the vegetable, let it shine on its own. It’s best not to muddle the flavor by adding other vegetables and miring it in a heavy, spicy sauce. Personally, I wouldn’t use traditional Indian spices on account of their boldness to mask the vegetable’s subtle flavor.
--Make an asparagus salad: Cut off the delicate tips and set aside for another recipe. Next, rotate and shave each spear with a peeler. Marinate the strands in a bowl of lemon juice and olive oil, and keep in the refrigerator for two hours. Add black pepper and shaved almonds. Toss with mustard and add raisins if desired. Other toppings include red onion, pistachio, finely chopped garlic, pomegranate, and orange zest.
--Create a light soup: soak almonds overnight, and then drain. Blend asparagus, nuts, cucumber, and tomato with water (use less for a chunky soup; more for a thin base). Season the soup with salt, basil, dill, and oregano.
|Shaved asparagus salad by cookieandkate.com|
--Get acquainted with asparagus’s taste by sautéing them in olive oil and garlic. Like broccoli, they indicate their readiness by becoming a bright, inviting shade of green. Drizzle with lemon juice for additional brightness. Or, toss the asparagus in olive oil, salt, and pepper, and then roast in the oven at high heat for five minutes.
--Add asparagus atop flatbread. Additional toppings include caramelized onion, roasted garlic, honey, and toasted walnut or pistachio.
--Make asparagus fries by dipping and frying them in a light batter. Dip in honey or mustard.
--Serve warm asparagus soup by sautéing the vegetable gently. Separately, sautee potato, garlic, and onion. Combine the asparagus, and add two cups of water. Bring to a simmer, and then use an immersion blender to blend the soup. Flavor with salt and pepper as desired.
--Make an Asian inspired stir fry by gently cooking in sesame oil and garlic, and then tossing with soy sauce, orange juice, sesame seeds, and white wine vinegar. Add soba noodles if desired.
--Add asparagus to traditional Italian pasta dishes.
|By Adeena Sussman|
Lemon, orange zest, vinaigrette, mustard, honey, pepper, almond, walnut, caper, olive oil, artichoke, baby potato, peas, onion, chive, tarragon, garlic, parsley
Note: Asparagus’s acidic sulfur compounds make most wines taste metallic. Robert Harrington, author of the book, “Food and Wine Pairing,” suggests lessening this effect by pairing asparagus with earthy, high-acid Old World white wines.
Bees love asparagus as well, as its small, yellowish-green flowers are honey producing.
Asparagus is notorious for producing foul-smelling urine. Marcel Proust euphuistically noted in 1913 that asparagus “transforms my chamber pot into a flask of perfume.” However, not everyone’s nose detects the asparagus-producing, sulphur-like chemical known as mercaptan: Only 20 to 50% detect the unusual scent.
Shatwar, sootmooli, musli (Hindi)
Ashadi, majjigegadde, sipariberuballi (Kannada)