By Glenda Bartosh
It can be hard or chewy, stretchy and long, or soft and gooey. Swirled, twirled into a circle, twisted; blasted into bits or sifted. Coated or stuffed with flavoured sweet paste, or tinted and shaped into a monkey face. There are licorice cars and licorice cats, licorice babies, boats and bats. Sweet, sweet and salty, not so sweet; super salty or, frankly, reeking of pee.
Licorice (liquorice if you’re from England) is about as ancient and universal sweet treat as you can get. And it can touch off real passion at both ends of the spectrum.
In Canada, we’re so used to licorice in the form of candy we sometimes forget it is actually a plant — a perennial herb, to be precise, with lovely compound leaves vaguely reminiscent of caragana — that’s native to southern Europe. Its scientific name, Glycyrrhiza glabra , is from the Greek glykyrrhiza (of which “licorice” is a corruption): glykys , means “sweet” and rhiza means “root”. And that pretty much says it all.
The licorice paste, or black sugar as it’s called in the trade, typically used to flavour everything from Twizzlers to tobacco, is the thickened juice of the root of the plant. It’s prepared by boiling the crushed and ground roots, which are a lovely bright yellow inside. The characteristic sweet, pleasant licorice taste comes from two acids, one of them many times sweeter than sugar, the other resembling a steroid.
Licorice extract has been used for eons for medicinal purposes, for everything from treating ulcers to Addison’s disease. Its Asian relative, grown in China, is a popular “harmonizing” ingredient in Chinese medicine. If you eat way too much of the pure stuff, which you likely won’t, you can tip your fluid/sodium balance the wrong way or harm your liver.
But essentially licorice is pretty harmless if not outright good for you. Earl “food-as-medicine” Mindell touts it as great for sore throats, lowering blood pressure, keeping your heart and spleen healthy, and helping your digestion. Apparently, it’s even been the focus of research at various cancer institutes.
All of which points to some pretty decent rationales for trotting down to the Great Glass Elevator Candy Store and checking out just how many kinds of licorice there are. Manager Kelly Birmingham will be happy to be your licorice guide. It often turns out to be a tour down memory lane, with favourites totally dependent upon which part of the world you’re from.