< Vegetables

Arrow Root


Maranta arundinacea

Shortly after 1800, Campbell Wylly of Sapelo island and John Cooper of St. Simon’s Island introduced the cultivation of arrow root into Georgia. Maranta arundinacea grew natively in the East Indies, had been introduced in the 18th century into cultivation in the West Indies, and gradually developed a reputation as a vegetable singularly efficacious in nourishing people with digestive difficulties.

Deriving its name from the Native practice of applying the sliced root to arrow wounds, arrow root was a garden, rather than field, cultivar, growing up to two and a half feet tall. The leaves are rather hairy and spikey. Clusters of white flowers form on two stalks forming small globular fruit. It is harvested for its white, articulated tuberous root, a rhizome distinctive for its jointed stoles. The roots can grow up to a foot long with a diameter similar to that of a human finger. A little over a quarter of the root is composed of edible starch. Because the starch granules are smaller and finer than that of potato and other plant starches, the puddings made from arrowroot tend to be denser and silkier than that of potato, sago, or corn starch.

The plant takes ten months to mature. It was generally planted in May and harvested in March. Because it was grown exclusively in semi-tropical climes, the problem of winterkill was minimized.

Very mucilaginous (more so than sago or tapioca) the plant’s root after growing year, was exhumed, beaten in wooden mortars to a pulp, dumped into a vat of pure water, washed, and the fibrous component discarded. The milky liquor passed through a cloth sieve, allowed to settle, and then the top water drawn off. This was washed a second time, and then sun dried, baked, and broken into chunks that could be pounded to powder.[1] “The jelly is made by adding to a table spoonful of the powdered root as much cold water as will make it into a soft paste, then pour on boiling water, stirring it at the same time briskly, until it become a clear jelly, which may be seasoned with sugar and nutmeg, or a little wine or lemon juice may be added. For children it maybe prepared with milk, and if it ferment on the stomach, the addition of a little animal jelly will obviate that effect. Prepared in the form of pudding the arrow root powder is far preferable to any of the farinaceous substances, and affords a delicate and very proper food for convalescent patients.”[2]

Arrow root powder gained substantial popularity as a thickening agent, since it was a stable smooth starch that performed much as corn starch does. During the consumption fads of the 1840s, health sects and religious groups with sumptuary rules, embraced it, and arrow root puddings became fixtures in cookbooks. The sick drank beef tea and ate arrow root jelly for much of the century. One cultural problem that arose during the antebellum era was the fact that these most devout users of arrowroot tended to be northeasterners on the progressive end of the philosophical spectrum. The slavery used to manufacture arrow root became a problem for these consumers; boycotts were organized, leading to a decline in the market for Georgia and Florida product. During the Reconstruction period the fashion for arrow-root biscuits revitalized demand.

On the eve of the Civil War, Godey’s Lady’s Book (Vol. 52-1856) published a primer on arrow root cookery, since mothers superintended the treatment of household illnesses. It provides a snapshot of the entire range of the plant in its therapeutic employments.

The various plants sold as Arrow root during the 19th century did not derive from different strains of Maranta arundinacea so much as other plants that produced roots with similar starch profiles. Within the American market Maranta arrowroots were distinguished by place of cultivation, with Bermuda generally reckoned the finest, Georgia, the next, and St. Vincent bringing up the rear. The Varieties listed here are the rival sorts of roots that came to the transatlantic market under the rubric arrowroot.

1. P. L. Simmonds, The Commercial Products of the Vegetable Kingdom (London: the Echo Library, 2006 reprint of 1851 edition), p. 249.
2. James Thacher, James Currie, “Maranta arundinacea—Indian Arrow Root,” The American New Dispensary (Boston, 1810) pp. 151-52.

Arrowroot    History

Bermuda, Georgia, and St. Vincent varieties.

East Indian Arrow root    History

(Curcuma augustifolia) A member of the ginger family grown in India and common in English imperial commerce. The starch grains are more irregular than standard arrowroot, so this variety produces cruder puddings.

Tahiti Arrow root    History

(Tacca oceanica) The root consists of numerous yellowish white skinned tubers, scattered over with eye buds like so many potatoes, and are, in fact, scarcely distinguishable from the roots of that common vegetable; from these arise in the summer season, clusters of tall spreading palmately divided smooth leaves, from two to three feet high, of which length the foot stalk forms two-thirds or more; the leaf itself extends out to the breadth of eighteen inches or two feet

Portland Arrow root    History

(Arum maculatum) The Wake Robin plant has an acrid root that when processed—a manufactory exists on Portland island—produces starch of exceeding fineness.

Boiling Arrow root For Children (Godey’s Lady’s Book 1856)    History

Take a teaspoonful of arrowroot, put it into a breakfast cup and mix it smooth with two teaspoonfuls of cold water; then slowly pour on boiling water until it loses the white appearance and becomes transparent, Stirring quickly all the time ; then add milk or water until you get it to the consistency you wish, and sweeten it. It may be boiled with milk instead of water, which will render it more nourishing.

Arrow root For Sick Persons (Godey’s Lady’s Book 1856)    History

Boil as above, and sweeten to taste ; a little cinnamon or nutmeg grated into it will make it more palatable; wine or brandy may also be added at pleasure.

Arrow root Pudding (Godey’s Lady’s Book 1856)    History

Take four tablespoonfuls of sifted arrowroot, put it into a basin and break three or four eggs into it; rub them together until smooth, then pour over it about two breakfast cups of boiling milk; mix it well whilst you are pouring on the milk. If it comes to the consistency of a thick custard, it is properly done, and you must then butter a mould, pour your pudding into it, tie it in a towel and put it into a pot of boiling water and let it boil for an hour; should the milk not make it thick enough, you must pour the mixture into a pan and hold it over the fire until it thickens; then put it into the buttered mould. You may add if you like two tablespoonfuls of fine sugar; serve with wine sauce. The same mixture may be made with, the addition of a little spice, butter, and sugar, and baked in the oven.

Arrow root Blancmange (Godey’s Lady’s Book 1856)    History

Take four good tablespoonfuls of arrowroot, have four breakfast cups of milk well spiced, add a little ratifie and some isinglass to it, find when quite boiling pour it gently over the arrowroot, stirring quickly all the time; put into a mound, and when cold turn it out and serve with preserves and cream.

Arrow root Biscuits (Godey’s Lady’s Book 1856)    History

Rub together three-quarters of a pound of sugar and the same weight of butter until they rise ; beat three eggs well and mix with it, then stir in two .cups of sifted arrowroot, and two cups of sifted flour; roll them out thin, cut them with a biscuit cutter; place them in buttered tins, and bake them in a slow oven.

Plain Arrow root Biscuits (Godey’s Lady’s Book 1856)     History

Mix together two" cups of sifted arrowroot and the same quantity of flour, with one cup of milk, two tablespoonfuls of butter, and a little yeast; knead all together, roll it out, cut it into biscuits; place them on tins and let them stand to rise for half an hour or more before you bake them.

Arrow root Cakes For Breakfast (Godey’s Lady’s Book 1856)    History

Mix together two cups of arrowroot, half a cup of flour, and a tablespoonful of salt butter, one egg, and as much milk or water as will bring it to the consistency of paste; roll it out, and cut it with a breakfast cup, and put the cakes on a baking iron ; a few minutes will bake them; split and butter them, and send them to table hot.