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Arrowroot is a leafy tropical plant with starchy, edible rhizomes. Reed-like stems grow from 2 to 6 meters straight up from the under-ground stems of the Arrowroot plant. The tops of the hollow stems unfurl into soft, elongated oval leaves with deep symmetrical ridges. Roots are harvested when the leaves have withered and died, generally in the fall, after at least 11 months of growth. Though, Arrowroot can be overwintered in the ground and harvested in the spring. Arrowroot tubers grow anywhere from 8 to 15 centimeters in length and are carrot-shaped. The roots have a thin, brown skin covering a stark white flesh. The papery skin lies in sections over the root like a shield, and can be peeled or washed off. Arrowroot has a smooth, dense flesh, similar to a potato. It is juicy and the flavor is mild and a bit sweet.
Arrowroot is available in the late fall through the early spring months.
Arrowroot is the common name for both the plant and the tuber of Maranta arundinacea, a perennial plant that has been used for thousands of years not only for its ornamental value but also its culinary and medicinal benefits. Arrowroot is also known simply as Maranta or West Indian Arrowroot. The root is typically harvested and processed for its nutrient-rich starch and protein. Arrowroot powder (or flour) is an easy-to digest substitute for wheat flour or corn starch.
Arrowroot is most nutritious in its raw state. Once it is processed into powder, it loses much of its nutrient content. Arrowroot contains vitamins A and B-complex (thiamine, riboflavin and niacin), as well as vitamin B6. It contains minerals like calcium and manganese and is high in folates. Arrowroot in its raw form contains high amounts of protein and dietary fiber, though the values for fiber increases quite a bit once the tuber is converted to a powder. Because of the nutrient levels of Arrowroot, a gelatinous substance made from the starch of the tuber was often prescribed to infants and invalids who were having difficulty digesting solid foods.
Arrowroot is most often cooked prior to consumption, unless making starch from the roots. The white tubers can be prepared like potatoes and roasted or grated or chopped and added to soups or stews. Arrowroot can be cut into pieces and fried like chips; they are said to be more flavorful than potatoes. When included in soups, the root will have a slight thickening effect, but not nearly the same as the powdered Arrowroot starch. Making flour from Arrowroot is a relatively laborious process that includes stripping the thin skin from the roots, smashing them, letting the pulp sit in water, straining the pulp and allowing the released starch to settle to the bottom. The water is changed out several times and the collected starch is laid out in the sun to dry. The process can take up to two days, depending on evaporation time. The resulting white powder has a look and texture similar to cornstarch. The root will keep in a cool, dark environment for up to two months. When ready to use, Arrowroot will keep in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
The White House Cookbook published in 1887 had several recipes featuring Arrowroot powder. One recipe was for a dessert similar to panna cotta, called blanc-mange. Another recipe called for Arrowroot milk porridge and yet another for Arrowroot wine jelly, given to ease symptoms of the sick. Arrowroot can also be candied, just as eryngo (the root of the sea-holly plant) and other roots were candied in late 17th century England. The “sweetmeat” confection was created by boiling the peeled root in a simple syrup flavored with rosewater or lemon, then dried and dusted with powdered sugar.
Arrowroot is native to Central America and the West Indies. The name Arrowroot is likely a corruption of the word ‘aru-root’ from the Arawak people of South America. The belief is that the common name is derived from the root’s use as an antidote for poisonous arrows. Maranta arundinacea is the true Arrowroot, though the name is used to describe a variety of starchy tubers like Brazilian arrowroot (Manihot utilissimaor), Tahitian arrowroot (Tacca oceanica), and East Indian arrowroot (Curcuma augustifolia). Explorers encountered Arrowroot in the West Indies and brought it back to Europe. The tropical plant arrived in England in the early 18th century, and was also taken to India and Southeast Asia. On the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent, Arrowroot is the primary commercial export and way of life for many of the islands inhabitants and has been since the mid-19th century. Around that time, Arrowroot powder from the Caribbean (particularly from Bermuda) was considered the best quality. Pure Arrowroot powder was so expensive in England, some companies were known to “adulterate” the pure starch with potato or corn starch. Arrowroot tubers are still widely cultivated in the Caribbean and Central America and can be found growing in tropic and subtropical regions throughout the world, like South Africa, Australia, and Southeast Asia. In the United States, Arrowroot can be found at some farmer’s markets and in home gardens in sub-tropical locations like Florida and California.
Recipes that include Arrowroot. One is easiest, three is harder.
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