For most Westerners, licorice is synonymous with candy. It brings to mind Good & Plenty and black jelly beans. But licorice root has a long history of cooking applications beyond confectionery.
Licorice (sometimes spelled liquorice) has been used as an herbal remedy and sweetening agent across cultures for centuries.
Ancient Egyptians enjoyed a licorice-flavored drink called mai sus. King Tut himself was entombed with a large amount of licorice root so that he could continue to enjoy the sweet beverage well into the afterlife.
Ancient Greek and Roman physicians recommended using licorice root for for quelling hunger and thirst. Numerous Chinese herbal remedies have classically used licorice to enhance and balance out other therapeutic ingredients (or at least to mask their less than pleasant flavors.)
Today, licorice is one of the most commonly used herbs in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). It is isn’t so surprising, then, that the sweet root also plays a part in Chinese cuisine. In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about cooking with this aromatic ingredient.
What Is Chinese Licorice Root?
Chinese licorice (or liquorice) root is the rhizome (the underground stem) of the plant Glycyrrhiza glabra, which is native to Asia, Turkey, and Greece. The dried roots of the plant resemble small twigs with a woody brown exterior and pale yellowish interior.
The flavor of liquorice root is strong and complex; it is bittersweet, warm, and subtly spicy. Its aroma is comparable to that of anise and fennel seed.
How Is Chinese Licorice Root Used?
The intense, multi-faceted fragrance of licorice root makes it a powerful aromatic ingredient in both sweet and savory dishes. Most Chinese recipes that include licorice (including those you’ll find here at The Woks of Life) will call for dried slices of the root.
In savory dishes like our Lanzhou Beef Noodle Soup and Braised Beef Shank, dried licorice slices are simmered with other aromatic ingredients like sand ginger and cinnamon bark to add richness and complexity.
Pre-made packets of Chinese spices including licorice and other aromatics can be purchased for this use, but we prefer to purchase the ingredients separately and tie them together into cheesecloth.
Chinese licorice root is also a popular ingredient in tea because of its sweetness and health benefits. Try our Sour Plum Drink, which combines the flavor of licorice with that of dried mandarin orange peel and rock sugar to create a satisfyingly sweet and sour beverage. It’s super refreshing with ice on a hot summer day!
The longer you infuse licorice in broths and teas, the stronger its flavor will become. You can simmer the slices in recipes without putting them into a cheesecloth packet first, but just be sure to strain out the whole pieces before serving since, they will be woody and unpleasant to bite into.
Buying & Storing Chinese Licorice Root
You’ll find Chinese liquorice root at Asian markets and online. Look for plastic packages of the thin root slices. Because they are usually thin cross-sections of root, they will be white or pale yellow in appearance. You can also buy the roots whole or pre-ground into a fine powder.
Store dried licorice root in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. When stored properly, the whole or sliced roots can last for two or three years. Ground spices tend to lose their potency more rapidly, so keep this in mind if you choose to buy powdered licorice root.