Arugula has a long history, experiencing many peaks and valleys in popularity throughout the centuries and several appearances in famous literature prior to arriving at its current prevalence in modern cuisine.
Arugula has been around for quite a while. It was even mentioned in the Old Testament Book of Kings (II Kings 4:39, to be exact). So, we know that arugula’s history is a long one and that it was harvested as early as the 6th century B.C.
Aside from the Bible, the nutty green appears in various works throughout history. Five hundred years or so after arugula was mentioned in the Old Testament, Virgil penned a poem mentioning our favorite salad leaf: et Venerem revocans eruca morantem (or, loosely translated, “… and arugula, which recalls the lagging wish for sexual delights”).
We believe this is the first-ever mention of arugula as a precursor to Viagra. Interpret it as you may, though.
The peppery green also appears in Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis (circa 77 AD). Pliny the Elder was a respected soldier, lawyer, and writer who did a fair amount of research on the effects and benefits of arugula, the whole of which is chronicled in his encyclopedic masterwork. Thanks to his observations, we know that arugula was used as an anesthetizing agent and was prized as an aphrodisiac, a claim that has echoed throughout the ages (with surprisingly little actual proof).
Throughout the history of arugula, it’s standing as a salad green fluctuated between countries, with its popularity waning in countries like England but soaring in Germany. In Italy, however, arugula was a constant presence in everyday meals, with Italians growing and eating arugula throughout its decline in universal popularity in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Then along came the foodie culture, and arugula was no longer history. In The United States of Arugula1, David Kamp documents the fairly recent rise of this culture in the United States. Throughout the book, arugula shares the stage with free-range chickens, artisanal cheeses, heirloom tomatoes, and other food that has elevated American cooking to “cuisine” in the past 20-odd years.
With a generation of more adventurous eaters (with more refined palates) eschewing icebergs in favor of more flavorful salad greens, arugula’s modern moment has arrived. Today, our favorite green is not only found in even the smallest corner groceries but is regularly showing up on menus from Momofuku’s to McDonald’s.
- Native to the Mediterranean region, arugula blossoms and leaves have long been a popular ingredient in the cuisines of Italy, Morocco, Portugal, and Turkey.
- In ancient Rome and Egypt, the consumption of arugula leaves and seeds was associated with aphrodisiac properties.
- Mention of arugula can be found in several religious texts, in 2 Kings in the Bible it is referred to as oroth, and in Jewish texts such as the Mishna and Talmud that date back to the first through fifth century AD.
- Arugula was brought to America by British colonists but it was not until the 1990s that arugula became known as a popular culinary ingredient in the United States.
- In India, the leaves of arugula are not commonly used however the seeds of the plant are pressed to produce oil known as taramira that is used for medicinal and cosmetic purposes.
- Arugula’s spicy aroma and flavor make it naturally resistant to pests.
1 Kamp, David. The United States of Arugula: how we became a gourmet nation. New York: Broadway, 2006. Print.