This is an open letter to all the licorice haters out there. I was once like you. I have vivid memories of being handed licorice of all sorts as a toddler, and promptly spitting them out. The betrayal just continued when I tried licorice flavored Good and Plenty candies. For a lot of years I was living a licorice-free life. It was easy enough to turn down black licorice ropes at the candy store. Yet, I find myself here today, cozied up with a nice cup of licorice tea, making a plea to the licorice haters of the world, asking for you to extend a little good will to licorice.
What is surprising how little I (and pretty much everyone else) knows about licorice. Glycyrrhiza glabra L., of the Fabaceae family is a flowering, perennial herb. It is in the same family as peas and beans, and licorice itself produces a similar looking (but not widely consumed) bean pod. The part of the plant that you are eating is the rhizome, which is a kind of underground stem. Licorice is harvested around the world today, but is native to Eurasia, northern Africa, and west Asia.
The reason that licorice makes such a classic candy flavoring is that it contains glycyrrhizin, a compound which is naturally 50 times sweeter than sugar. People have been consuming licorice for a long time. How long? Long enough that King Tut was buried with it, and it is said that it was one of his favorite aphrodisiacs. Alexander the Great’s army drank licorice before marches to ward off thirst. In fact, the botanical name for licorice, sweet root, is Greek in origin. Monks across Europe have long believed in the medicinal power of licorice. It was served as a tea/broth, and was thought to do everything from purify the blood to calm a cough. Licorice is actually still used in cough syrups and lozenges today. Perhaps most fascinating to me, Licorice is used in traditional Japanese medicine to treat Hepatitis.
The tradition of making licorice into a candy started in Pontefract, Yorkshire, in the 1600s. It was mixed with sugar to create the “Pontefract Cake” – which essentially was a licorice candy, marketed for its health benefits. Licorice continues to be a popular flavoring in Europe. In the UK, Licorice Allsorts, and their mascot, Bertie Bassett, remain an important part of pop culture. Many Nordic countries consume “salty licorice”, like the Zoute drop in the Netherlands. I personally have never tried any salty licorice, so if anyone has, please enlighten us in the comments. In Egypt and Syria, licorice is served as a beverage that you can buy on the street. In my home, it’s consumed as licorice-mint tea, which I highly recommend investing in at the grocery store.
Licorice also has some unexpected uses. A majority of the world’s licorice harvest actually goes to the tobacco industry, where it is used a flavoring in cigarettes and chewing tobacco. A lot of what is described as licorice flavor in food is actually anise or fennel – cheaper and less sweet alternatives. Licorice is used as stout flavoring, and in a number of international liquors. Even some cosmetics include licorice.
So here’s my plea to the licorice haters. Give it a second chance. Don’t buy the same, old, stale licorice candies. Pick up some licorice tea. Buy some fresh licorice bark. Get some soothing licorice face cream. Open your palate, open your mind. Learn to love licorice.