Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb

One of the delightfully English foods of my childhood was rhubarb crumble. Although, my mother served us all those English comfort foods—chocolate pudding, lemon pudding, rice pudding—rhubarb crumble always seemed the most out of place in rural Australia.

As fond as I was of rhubarb, it always had a bit of a frumpiness about it. The sound of it even seems a little silly. Indeed, repeating rhubarb multiple times is the way English actors simulated background conversation on stage and screen from the 1930s. It is the name of a short comedy film by Eric Sykes.

But don’t be fooled by the humble, and only recently unfashionable rhubarb. It has an exotic history going back thousands of years. It originates from northwest China and Tibet. Chinese Rhubarb (Rheum palmatum) was used as a purgative, a common cure for most illnesses in ancient times (the variety grown for food is R. rhabarbarum, an 18th-century cultivar, and not to be confused with the Chinese variety). The dried rhubarb roots were much sought after as they are a strong and effective laxative with the advantages of short-lived and painless effects.

The use of medicinal rhubarb gradually spread from China to India, across Asia and eventually into Europe by the time of the Romans. The Romans appreciated its medicinal qualities. The Greek herbalist, Discorides, who lived in Rome when Nero was emperor, wrote of a root known as “rha” or “rheon”.

Caravans along the Silk Road were bringing rhubarb through the mountains in central Asia and on to Europe through the Black Sea. This trade lasted for more than 1500 years.

The use of rhubarb in desserts or puddings became common in late 18th century Britain with the development of the more edible varieties and with sugar becoming much cheaper. Rhubarb has a strong flavour but without sugar it is quite bitter. Rhubarb in Britain (and the US) was very popular up to the Second World War. In Britain, it was mostly grown in the “Rhubarb Triangle” between Wakefield, Leeds and Bradford in West Yorkshire. However, in post-war Britain there was a strong decline in its popularity, probably due to the availability of a variety of imported fruits.

The word rhubarb came into English via French, rubarbe, from the Latin word, rheubarbarum. The plant was originally given the name rha from the Scythian name of the River Volga, the Rha, from where the Russians exported it from where they received it from China or, according to some, where it was grown. The word was first encountered in medieval Latin (in about the 14th century) and literally translates as rha (rhubarb) of the barbarians (foreigners).

The importance of rhubarb as a major trading commodity between East and West from ancient to late medieval times is often not understood by modern people. Its value should not be judged from the rhubarb crumble that was served to us as children but for the medical properties of the Chinese variety that was traded along the Silk Route with perfume, spice, medicine, jewels and silk. Its importance and exotic history is recognised in its name.