Rhubarb is actually a vegetable that most people think of as a fruit. Historically, it was neither: rhubarb was traded as a drug (along with opium) and used as one too. According to The Rhubarb Compendium – an entire site dedicated to rhubarb! – the earliest records of rhubarb date back to 2700 BCE in China (although it may have originated in Siberia). In China, it was used as a medicinal plant, with uses ranging from a purgative in times of plague to a poison in efforts of suicide.
Rhubarb journeyed west along the Silk Road, arriving in Europe in the 14th century. Marco Polo talked at great length about rhubarb, which by his time had made its way into pharmacies and bakeries in Italy. It arrived in Maine in the late 1790s and spread to Massachusetts by the1820s. It was not until this time that people in Britain and North American began cultivating rhubarb for culinary purposes.
Rhubarb is a member of the buckwheat family (think soba noodles). Its celery-like stalks – in shape and texture, not taste – are rich in vitamin C and dietary fibre and are a good source for calcium and potassium. Note: rhubarb leaves are poisonous: they contain toxic oxalic acid. Rhubarb sold in our box, at farmers’ markets, and in supermarkets is generally trimmed of the leaves, but if ever in doubt, trim the upper green or white part by a couple inches and use only the stalk!
Rhubarb is quite tart, typically requiring it to be paired with sweet fruits or cooked down with lots of sugar, probably why people often think of it as a fruit. However, rhubarb is extremely versatile: pairing well with spices, ginger, and heat, chillies, for example.
For a sweet treat, try it stewed with honey, orange juice, vanilla, and ginger, served over vanilla ice cream or yogurt (Mapleton’s is the best!). Or for something new, check out the recipe below!