Culinary History: The Etymology of Garden Rocket, Rocket Salad, and Arugula




Culinary History: The Etymology of Garden Rocket, Rocket Salad, and Arugula

Depending upon where you live, this leafy herb, with its four petals resembling a Greek cross, has many names, including ruchetta and roquette.

By Mark Zuleger-Thyss



Grown since ancient Roman times, arugula was first used as a medicinal herb and aphrodisiac and is now grown and eaten around the world



Rocket or arugula is immediately recognizable with deep green leaves and deeply edged notches up and down both sides. Arugula is frequently eaten raw as a salad green but can also be enjoyed cooked in various dishes.

When people from southern Italy came to the United States in the 1800s and 1900s, they brought arugula, a sharp-tasting decorative herb, with them.



Don’t be confused, though; this cruciferous vegetable grown for its pungent edible leaves represents Italy in more ways than one.

The common trend you might be detecting is this: most of arugula’s aliases come from Italy. This is undoubted because the vegetable has been popular there for far longer than elsewhere.

Arugula comes from a combination of rucola, the modern Italian word for green, and arucula.

Rocket, instead, comes from the northern Italian word, ruchetta, which became roquette in France, and then rocket in the United Kingdom. You might hear it called roquette, rugula, salad rocket, or garden rocket in America.



Common Name: Rocket, Arugula, Roquette

Plant Type: Small, low-growing annual or perennial herb

Scientific Name: Eruca sativa is a leafy green and a member of the Brassica family of cruciferous vegetables

Native Habitat: Italy and Mediterranean countries

Varieties: Eruca vesicaria, a closely related species of E. sativa, is native to the Iberia and mountainous northwest African regions


Use throughout History

Arugula is an ancient plant gathered from the wild in most Mediterranean countries.

The arugula plant has a long history of use in many different cuisines and was even mentioned in the Bible. It’s also mentioned in Jewish texts, such as the Mishna and Talmud, that date back to the first through fifth centuries A.D.



Centuries ago in Italy, arugula was also called “eruca.” This is the Latin word for “caterpillar” and refers to how the plant was vulnerable to caterpillar infestations.

Arugula is prevalent in Italian cuisine and particularly in salads.

Its fame dates to Roman times when a salad of arugula was part of a typical Roman meal. Their custom was to serve a healing salad made with arugula, romaine lettuce, chicory, mallow, and lavender.

The people of ancient times used the arugula seeds not only as an aphrodisiac but as a flavoring for cooking oils.



In modern times, arugula crept into the political media when Obama used it in a speech in Iowa in 2007. “Arugulagate” was suddenly in the news.

Obama referred to the inflated cost of arugula at Whole Foods Market (Iowa didn’t have a Whole Foods) when the herb was uncommon in American grocery stores.

Political media ran with the gaffe and folded it into its own news cycle, charging Obama with elitism. It was not just arugula – lattes also got slandered. Food was having its moment but was used to prove one’s ability to govern a nation.

It was a big moment for food as proof of one’s actual ability to govern. 


How Does Arugula Taste?

Fresh arugula has a distinctive spicy kick that will turn up the flavors in your salads, pasta, and sauces. The taste can be bright, tart, peppery, and slightly bitter, depending on its maturity. You’ll find that baby arugula is delicate and mild, while mature arugula is much spicier.



Too spicy on its own? Mix it with other leafy greens like baby romaine, spinach, mizuna, and frisée.

Today arugula leads in quiet superiority as the best-tasting, most versatile, and most effortless to prepare of the common greens. In a nutshell - it makes things delicious. Its pleasant, peppery flavor and crunchiness are perfect as a topping for almost anything, especially on sandwiches, pizzas, or layered inside a burger.


Brassica vegetables | Source of Nourishment & Medicine

According to Annette Reeder, the Biblical Nutritionist, cruciferous vegetables are anti-angiogenesis agents. Angiogenesis refers to the formation of new blood vessels. These vegetables are very potent and studies have confirmed their cancer-fighting properties.

Arugula and others in the Brassica family of vegetables inhibit the outward growth of blood vessels that will give a cancerous tumor the ability to transport its cells throughout the entire body.


“They are named cruciferous because these vegetables have cross-shaped flowers. They resemble Christ’s crucifix or cross; in a way, these vegetables save us from diseases, like Jesus Christ redeemed humankind from sin when He died on the cross.”

- Annette Reeder, the Biblical Nutritionist



Health Benefits & Uses in Traditional Medicine

Arugula is low in sugar, carbohydrates, and fat. However, 100 g of fresh leaves contain just 25 calories. Nonetheless, it has many vital phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals that may benefit health.



Leafy arugula greens are rich in beta-carotene and antioxidants, which boost the immune system and may promote eye and bone health. Other nutrients contained in a helping of arugula are iron, vitamin C, vitamin B, vitamin K, vitamin A, calcium, potassium, and folate.

Medicinally, it is used as a tonic herb. Adding more of these leafy greens to your diet – or drinking them in an infusion - will encourage healthy weight loss.

Across many parts of the Mediterranean, Turkey, Lebanon, and Syria, arugula seeds were used for flavoring oils. They had well-known benefits — from working as a natural infertility treatment to improving digestion. 


A Word of Caution

Arugula is one of the foods rich in nitrates. In the human body, nitrate is partially converted to nitrite, and nitrite affects oxygen transport in the blood and can be converted into carcinogenic nitrosamines.

Because the stalks of the arugula plant collect a good amount of nitrate, you should always cut them off before eating and only use the leaves. Vitamin C partially prevents nitrate from forming its dangerous metabolites. To achieve this, you can combine peppers with arugula, for example, or use lemon juice to sour the salad dressing.






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