A cornerstone of the Japanese diet, 90 percent of daikon radish is both grown and consumed in Japan. Traditionally pale in color, with a long carrot-like shape, newer heirloom varieties boast a wide range of colors, shapes, tastes, and textures.
Though it originated in the Black Sea region between Europe and Asia, the daikon is most closely associated with Japanese food culture. Brought by traders during Japan’s Edo period, the daikon quickly adapted to regional conditions and climates throughout the country, developing numerous local varieties suited to each region’s taste and cuisine.
Daikon is quite high in vitamin C and folate and is an excellent source of minerals such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, and copper. Daikon leaves contain more iron and calcium than spinach, as well as cancer-fighting compounds called glucosinolates. In Ayurvedic medicine, daikon is believed to promote digestive health, detoxify the liver, boost the immune system, and fight aging.
Snip off leaves about ¼ inch from the top of the radish, clean off any soil, wrap in a damp cloth or paper towel, and store in an unsealed bag or container in the refrigerator crisper for up to 2 weeks. Avoid cutting the daikon before storing, as the potent smell will spread throughout your refrigerator. Well-dried leaves can be stored for up to a week.
Shredded or julienned daikon is a great counterpart for rich flavors—try it as a spicy condiment with barbecue and other slow-cooked meat dishes. It adds an instant kick to sushi, spring rolls, and sandwiches (it’s a must for banh mi), and is a natural addition to traditional Japanese comfort food such as oden or miso soup. The leaves are a zesty substituted for lettuce in salads or sandwiches or can be made into furikake, a classic Japanese condiment for rice, noodles, or seafood.
Cut daikon into French fry-size sticks, and coat in a mixture of oil, tamari, chili paste, and grated ginger. Add a pinch of salt and sugar and toss to coat, then spread in a single layer on a large baking sheet. Roast at 475 degrees for 30 minutes, pausing halfway through to flip. Lay on paper towels to drain, then serve warm.
The part of the daikon closest to the leaves is usually the sweetest, while the part toward the tip has the spiciest flavor.