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I Spice: Licorice

Licorice root, one source of that unique flavor. (iStockPhoto)

If you are pregnant, you might as well stop reading.

You see, thoughts of what to eat -- or not eat -- during pregnancy is how this discussion on licorice started. I was talking to Frances Largeman-Roth, author of “Feed the Belly: The Pregnant Mom’s Healthy Eating Guide" (Sourcebooks, 2009), about her favorite ingredients. She mentioned licorice, but quickly added that she had to avoid it for 17 months while pregnant and nursing. That's because licorice extract has been linked to pre-term labor and has been shown to inhibit breast milk production.

On the other hand, licorice was one of the treasures discovered in the tomb of the Egyptian king Tutankhamun, so it can't be all bad, right?

Indeed, there's plenty that's good about it. Largeman-Roth, a dietician and the senior food editor at Health magazine, said licorice root is phenomenal for treating a sore throat, shows promise in helping to soothe gastric ulcers and also works a digestive aid. In a recent issue of the Journal of Leukocyte Biology, a study showed licorice root might even be effective in battling severe burn infections.

Health benefits aside, its fans love it for the taste, and now that her baby is older, Largeman-Roth is back to enjoying licorice's sweet anise flavor. "I love it as a tea, and also as a confection," she said. "To me there is nothing better than soft, Australian-style black licorice."

That's how most people are familiar with licorice, in its candy form: a soft, black, chewy, sweet treat. But it is also sold as a dried or fresh root, extract and in powder form. I haven't seen or used fresh licorice root and don't think it is readily available, but the plant is a perennial that can grow to 4 feet and has gorgeous purple flowers.

Its name derives from the Greek for “sweet root," and sweet it is, with some varieties said to be 50 times as sweet as sugar. Even so, black licorice candy is the only candy made with real licorice; the red candy we are familiar with is actually flavored with anise. (And that's to say nothing of cinnamon, grape, green apple and watermelon-flavored licorice.)

Largeman-Roth says she buys her licorice teas from Traditional Medicinals and Alvita. Also, sells the dried root at a great price. For the candy, go for Australian, she advises, for superior flavor. "It is so supple and soft, with a true licorice flavor that isn't overwhelming like some of the Swedish varieties," she told me. (I found it on

Recipe Included

As with so many spices, store the dried root tightly sealed in a dark, dry, cool place. Licorice candy should also be kept in a sealed bag or container where it won’t be affected by moisture.

For all that some people love licorice, I have to admit, I almost thought of dropping the idea for this post when, after talking to Largeman-Roth my requests to my social network for “Licorice lovers, call me,” went unanswered. Was there no one else who obsesses on this sweet delight?

Later that week, I was sitting on my porch opening a bag of the candy when my neighbor dropped by and could not stop eating it or telling me how much she goes for licorice, as a candy and as a flavoring in ice-cream and warm milk. And then I heard from Chef Michael Solomonov, who showcases modern Israeli cuisine at his restaurant Zahav in Philadelphia, who likened the flavors of licorice to a little anise, earth, resin and wintergreen, all coming together. He offered these tips for using licorice:

  • Use the candy as a subtle palate cleanser in between courses or with cheese.

  • Steep the dried roots in hot water as you would for tea and serve the liquid sweetened with honey.

  • Grate the fresh root, if you can find it, with a rasp on warm oatmeal, or on top of sweet potatoes (along with bacon fat) before broiling them.

  • Throw a fresh stick into a pot roast or braised veal, beef shanks or lamb shoulder.

-- Monica Bhide

Licorice Candy Sundae
1 serving

You can find the Australian-style licorice in candy stores or easily on Adapted from a recipe by Frances-Largeman Roth, food editor for Health magazine.

1/2 cup vanilla bean ice cream
1 teaspoon Sambuca, ouzo or other licorice-flavored liqueur
1-inch piece of Australian-style black licorice, such as Darrell Lea brand, cut into small bits (see headnote)

Place the ice cream in a small bowl; drizzle the liqueur over top. Scatter the licorice pieces over the ice cream.

Per serving: 170 calories, 3 g protein, 20 g carbohydrates, 8 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 30 mg cholesterol, 65 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 16 g sugar

By The Food Section  |  April 2, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  I Spice , Recipes  | Tags: I Spice, Monica Bhide  
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I adore licorice, not to mention anise and fennel (and basil). But the Australian candy is so soft that I can get through it far too fast. I prefer the chewy Dutch coins or English Pontefract (or Pomfret or Pomfrey) cakes -- I can eat them more slowly and make them last longer! Some European countries also go for salty (sometimes called "salmiac" licorice) but to my American tastebuds the salt overwhelms the truly important flavor.

But all these options are imported -- all that the US has managed to come up with is Twizzlers, it seems. As you say, it's a less-known delight.

Posted by: LizaJoan | April 2, 2010 10:19 AM | Report abuse

Oh, yes, my dear. Licorice is one of my great loves, also. I remember as a child being given all the black jelly beans.

It's a little harder to find the better grade, but worth the effort.

My nieces are always offering me that abominable red stuff, which they think is actually licorice. I politely decline.

Posted by: jhershelredpuppy1 | April 2, 2010 10:22 AM | Report abuse

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