“Try it,” I said, passing the bag to a friend.
“What is it?” she said, moderately concerned.
“Salty licorice,” I responded. “Everyone in Sweden loves it.”
This is basically how every conversation with friends would go after I would return from trips to Sweden. I would stock up on bags upon bags of salted licorice, a favorite of mine since childhood, and bring them back to try to get my friends to try them.
The results were mixed. Either friends would pucker up their cheeks, make a revolted face and spit it out immediately, cursing my attempt at culinary exploration.
Others – although there weren’t many – would have a look of intrigue, not entirely sure what they had just put in their mouth, but interested enough that they weren’t immediately put off.
If they made it that far, and let the initial intensity wear off, their face would soften and things would end with a “That’s actually not bad.” I had succeeded in making another licorice devotee.
I have always loved licorice (spelled liquorice in many other parts of the world), but not the overly sweet rendition — or god forbid, the red stuff that really doesn’t deserve to be called licorice at all — that we are often served in the United States.
In the Scandinavian countries, much like other northern European countries, licorice is strong and black, and often doused in a salty outer layer of ammonium chloride (made by the combination of hydrochloric acid and ammonia), that makes for its incredible intense salty flavor, loved by some, hated by others. In Finland there is even a Salty Liquorice Association.
With a mother who hails from Sweden, my summers were often spent in front of the bulk candy section, a paper bag in one hand and a scoop in the other, rows of salty licorice options in front of me. My version of heaven, everybody else’s version of hell.
Salty or not, I do like the strong taste of licorice. Licorice, anise, fennel; I love it all. While my friends cringe, I can’t get enough of that distinct flavor, and while many North Americans have an aversion to it, it’s a beloved treat in many other parts of the world and it comes with a history.
Licorice is actually the root of Glycyrrhiza glabra (related to the pea and bean family), a plant native to Europe and Asia, and often classified as a weed. In Greek, the name means “sweet root” and the root can be chewed on its own.
Of course, in today’s world of processed food licorice root is often used in addition with other ingredients, like flour and molasses, to make the confections with which most of us are familiar. While those are certainly on no one’s list of superfoods, licorice root on its own comes with a variety of health benefits and has a long history of medicinal use in both Western and Eastern medicine.
Licorice was one of the first foods to be investigated by the National Cancer Institute’s Experimental Food Program, and large amounts of it were even found in the Egyptian Pharaoh King Tutankhamun’s tomb. Overconsumption, however, has been linked to hypertension and cardiac dysfunction, proof that, just like most other things, it should be consumed in moderation.
Today, many countries, particularly in Europe, have a strong connection to licorice. In Calabria in the south of Italy, you’ll find a robust history of licorice production, where Amarelli has been making confections from licorice root since the 1700s. In Denmark, you’ll find the more upscale licorice brand Lakrids, which adds eccentric flavors like habanero chili to their licorice confections, as well as chocolate covered versions (I’ve tried several, they’re entirely addictive).
Licorice root powder is also becoming more popular, used to flavor foods and baked goods; I put some in a batch of granola once, a total licorice win, and if that’s not up your alley, please let me recommend adding some to a chocolate cake.
While the distinct taste of licorice has often been a little too much for the American palate, there’s a slowly growing fringe group of devotees on this side of the Atlantic.
Oregon-based Jacobsen Salt Co. makes a salty licorice, perfect for anyone who is craving a taste of Scandinavia but wants something produces a little closer to home.
Looking for licorice mixed with something else? Laurie and Sons in New York offers up a black licorice chocolate toffee — the perfect gateway drug to enjoying licorice. These days, it’s also not surprising if you happen upon a licorice ice cream. Just be prepared for your lips to turn a darker, tinted shade. And if none of that hasn’t enticed you, what about a licorice beer? Michigan’s Short’s Brewing Company makes a licorice lager.
Licorice might have scared you off once before, but trust me, however it comes — be it a beer, ice cream or just the root on its own – it’s worth a try now. Who knows, you might just turn into a lifelong licorice lover.
Anna Brones is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break and runs Foodie Underground, a site about real food for real people. Wherever she is in the world, she can often be found riding a bicycle in search of excellent coffee.
Main photo by Petra Bensted CC BY. Licorice allsorts photo by Dr_Kelly.