Arugula: Italy’s Favorite Salad Green

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In Ancient Egypt and Ancient Rome, arugula was well known and cultivated for its leaves and seeds. Virgil considered it to be an aphrodisiac for drowsy people. The leaves formed a part of a first-century Roman salad that featured other vegetables and herbs still in use today, including romaine and lavender. At the time, arugula seeds were also used to flavor oils.

Pliny the Elder mentioned arugula in his Historia Naturalis. In addition to noting its use as an aphrodisiac, he documented another way to use it: as an anesthetic. Over the centuries after, arugula would make its way throughout Europe and its popularity would rise and fall both on the European mainland and in the British Isles. Arugula would remain popular in Italy and would eventually be brought to the U.S. by Italian immigrants. It would be popular mainly among this population throughout the 19th century and most of the 20th.

In recent years, American eaters have become more willing to experiment with the more flavorful exotic ingredients. Because of this newfound adventurousness, herbs and vegetables with unusual flavor profiles have begun to form a part of the American diet.

The name arugula is a relatively recent addition to American English. It comes from the Southern word for the plant, which is aruculu. Northern Italians refer to it as rucula, which is also the name used in regular Italian. It just so happens that most of the Italian immigrants to the U.S. came from the Italian South. In the U.K., the same vegetable is called rocket. The name rocket comes the French word for the green: roquette.

Arugula flavor profile

Some people liken arugula’s flavor to that of mustard, which belongs to the same Brassicaceae botanical family. It has a spicy bite, and the fully grown leaves can also be slightly bitter. Baby arugula has a much milder flavor and is preferred by those who find the older leaves to be overwhelming.

Health benefits of arugula

Arugula has a host of health benefits because of nutrients like:

  • Vitamins: Arugula is similar to other members of the Brassicaceae family like cabbage and kale in that it is a good source of multiple vitamins. Arugula contains vitamins A and K.
  • Carotenoids: Arugula provides a significant amount of the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin.
  • Isothiocyanates: Like horseradish (another member of its family), arugula contains chemicals referred to as isothiocyanates and which account for some of its most important health benefits.

The addition of arugula to your diet can improve your health in various ways including by treating or preventing the following:

  • Eye problems: The high carotenoid content from arugula can help you to avoid problems of the eye like age-related macular degeneration.
  • Cancer: The isothiocyanates contained in arugula are useful for fighting cancer.
  • Heart disease: Arugula’s anti-inflammatory properties enable it to improve blood vessel health and at the same time lower your cholesterol levels, thus reducing your risk of mortality from cardiovascular illness.

Common uses

Most people who are familiar with arugula see it as an upscale and somewhat exotic salad green. This application is its most popular and most traditional one since it has been eaten raw going back to Roman times. It is excellent in winter salads. Like other members of its botanical family, arugula is edible cooked as well as raw. Combine it with pasta or add it to sauces. It is a common component of mesclun mixes and works well as the green element in sandwiches.