Rue herb belonging to the genus Ruta. It is a redolent evergreen subshrub distributed throughout temperate and tropical regions and most abundant in South Africa and Australia. The leaves are used in flavorings, beverages and herb vinegars and also in the making of cosmetics and perfumes.
The leaves can be described as being bipinnate or tripinnate, with a feathery appearance and green to strongly glaucous blue-green in colour. The flowers are yellow, with 4-5 petals, about 1 cm diameter, and borne in cymes. The fruit is a 4-5 lobed capsule, containing numerous seeds.
The leaves were used extensively in Middle Eastern cuisine in the earlier days, as well as in many ancient Roman recipes but because it is very bitter in taste it is usually not compatible to majority modern cuisine styles. Though it is still very much in use in certain parts of the world, specially in North Africa.
Rue’s fragrance is strong, characteristically aromatic and sweet; it cannot be compared with any other spice. The taste is rather bitter, even more so when dried. Rue fruits (berries) taste similar, but stronger and somewhat hot.
Most Western European languages have similar names for rue: English and French rue, Dutch ruit and German Raute all go back to Latin ruta, which itself was borrowed from Greek rhyte. The ultimate origin of the word is not known. Quite interestingly, several names of rue have chance homonyms: English rue may also mean “remorse”, French rue “street” and German Raute “rhomb, equilateral parallelogram”.
In the New Testament, rue has been mentioned as peganon, a name still used in Modern Greek as apiganos. There have been attempts to link that name with Greek pegos “strong” and thus the Indo-European root PEK “strengthen”, but the semantic connection is unclear.
A Brief Historical Background
Romans cultivated rue herb which they called it Mars’ herb, because it was used as a purifying agent for cleaning Iron (the metal of mars). They grew this herb around temples of Mars. It was also considered to be the Mars’ herb, because it can be as fierce as the god Mars. Its essential oil can be a very irritating agent and can easily cause burns and blisters on skin if applied.
Herb of grace was also widely used in the Middle Ages. Rue was hung under the door as a protection from evil spirits. People used to throw the bunch of rue in their enemy cursing him (that is where the expression “rue the day” has come from). In some European countries special amulets were made out of rue herb.
Rue was a very common spice in ancient Rome, very often it was used for country-style food like moretum, a spicy paste of fresh garlic, hard cheese and herbs (coriander, celery, rue); nevertheless, its name was often used to mean ‘bitterness’, especially in poetry.
Today it is still to a certain extent is in use in Italy however rue’s popularity is greatest in Ethiopia. Fresh rue leaves are sometimes used as a coffee flavoring) and rue is also sometimes mentioned as a component in the national spice mix, berbere. Ethiopian cuisine is unique in using not only rue leaves, but also the dried fruits (rue berries) with their more intensive, slightly pungent flavor that is well preserved on drying.
The bitter taste is reduced by acids; thus, a leaf or rue is often used to flavor pickled vegetables, make a salad more interesting or add a very personal touch to home-made herbal vinegar. Owing to its general affinity to acidic food, rue goes well with spicy Italian tomato sauces containing olives and capers together with marjoram, basil and lovage.
However, if a cook wants rue flavor without bitterness, he/she might make use of the fact that rue leaves excrete the essential oil much more quickly than the bitter rutin. Thus, the fresh leaves may be soaked in a slightly boiling sauce for a short time (at the most one minute) and discarded after wards. Rue is popular for flavoring liquors. Besides stimulating the appetite, bitter liquors have some tonic and even bile-stimulating properties, all of which are advantageous after a rich feast. One of the most common liquors containing rue is grappa con ruta, an Italian brandy flavored with a small branch of rue (per bottle). For this, the related Fringed Rue is usually preferred.