WRITTEN BY REBECCA AMELIA ARÉCHIGA
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MIEKO HORIKOSHI
WE FIRST START EATING them mashed out of a jar, then refuse to eat them even though our mothers insisted they’d help us see in the dark. Many years might have gone by when we ignored them altogether in cafeterias, let them grow cold alongside our chicken and rice at dinnertime. But the time has come to put the carrot on the center of our plates.
Often under-appreciated, the carrot is the “old soul” of the vegetable world. The wild carrot’s roots are grounded in Persia (regions of which are now Iran and Afghanistan). First bred for their aromatic leaves and seeds—some of their relatives, parsley, cilantro, and dill, are still cultivated for these purposes—over centuries, the vegetable was gradually refined out of its bitterness, increasing its sweetness and minimizing its original woody core. What we’re now familiar with, the “garden” carrot, has a single origin in Central Asia but it didn’t stay there.
Carrot seeds from 2000-3000 BC have been found in Switzerland and Southern Germany and the Romans ate a root vegetable called pastinaca in the 1st century AD which may have been a carrot or its sibling, the parsnip. The wild carrot was a white or ivory color. In the 10th century, the root of the carrot was purple and it disseminated along the Silk Road. In the 11th century, a Jewish scholar described them as red and yellow. There’s a theory that the orange carrot was first cultivated by the Dutch in the 17th century to honor the colors of the Dutch flag at the time as well as William of Orange but experts say that the modern predominant color first appeared in Spain and Germany in the 15th or 16th century.
The oldest surviving medical textbook in England is from the middle ages and references carrots and again and again as an herbal remedy. Time has not changed that. A nutritional powerhouse, carrots are fibrous, packed with beta carotene (your mother was right about seeing better in the dark), potassium, antioxidants, and have been linked to lowered cholesterol. Not to mention they’re cheap, accessible, and easily stored, it’s no wonder carrots are now cultivated and consumed worldwide.
“Carrots are an often overlooked vegetable,” says Maui-based private chef Hilary Barsby. “I love them because they can be used in a variety of different dishes. For example, a traditional marinara sauce that I learned from an Italian Chef friend calls for a few large carrots thrown into the pot with the sauce. The sweetness from the carrot helps to balance out the acidity of the tomato.”
And while she knows how to utilize the natural sweetness of carrots and their almost sweet potato-like texture when pureed in desserts and other sweet dishes, Chef Hilary also understands that different varieties of the modern carrot comprise of varying characteristics.
“[They’re] incredible versatile… Carrots can run the gamut in terms of sweetness. I find the white and lighter yellow carrots tend to be the sweetest, with the dark orange and purple varieties having a much more earthy flavor. The freshness of your carrots will also determine overall flavor, texture, and sweetness.”
No longer the bland and disregarded side dish, carrots have inched their way into a more central role in our modern cuisine. Chef Hilary even points out that in the trend of non-traditional carbs, carrot mash and carrot “noodles” have begun popping up on menus. The carrot’s roots are deep and if history is any indication of the future, their presentation may continue to change but carrots will be staying on our plates. [ eHI ]