The Central Asian home of leeks and the other alliums is a global Center of Diversity. Useful to both crop-plant breeders and conservation organizations, these centers were first proposed by Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov in the 1930s. Knowing where a plant’s wild relatives hail from enables breeders to bring new genetics into a line, or conservationists to work to preserve that area to ensure genetic diversity for the future.
Chemist Eric Block, author of Garlic and Other Alliums: The Lore and the Science, calls the Central Asian home of the alliums “a tough neighborhood” where plants must fend off insects and other herbivores by defending themselves with “some serious chemical weapons.” One of those weapons is the lachrymatory factor, the sulfury chemical that makes you tear up when you cut into an onion.
Domesticated as much as 10,000 years ago, leeks and other alliums probably spread east and west along the Silk Roads.
Leeks are hailed as a great source of antioxidants and other health-benefiting phytochemicals. Human health benefiting, that is: do not feed alliums to your dogs or cats, as those sulfury chemical weapons destroy their red blood cells.
Although you’re unlikely to suffer from garlic breath after eating leeks, cures for same include chomping on raw bits of kiwi fruit, eggplant, mushrooms, and parsley.
The word leek appears in a wide range of languages that descend from Proto Indo-European. The word simply means “plant,” and is found in the “lock” and “lic” stems of garlic, hemlock, and charlock. Garlic, from “gar-leek” means “spear leek,” due to the shape of the cloves.
Leeks are a cultigen of elephant garlic, Allium ampeloprasum (the prasum bit comes from the Greek word for leek, while an ampelo is a vineyard, so leeks and elephant garlic are the ones that grow in the vineyard). A cultigen is a plant with no wild counterparts. That’s likely because the alliums have been domesticated for thousands of years. Leeks are mentioned in the Bible, and the ancient word for a section of Greek markets was simply ta skoroda, the garlic.
Leeks are so popular among Anglo-Saxon cultures that the word for a kitchen garden is “leek-garth.” The name Chicago is from an Indian word, cigaga-wunj, the place of the wild garlic.
Along with the daffodil, the leek is a national symbol of Wales, worn on St. David’s Day. Saint David was a fifth-century monastic who became a patron saint of oppressed Celts resisting the occupation of invading Normans. Like the apocryphal Revolutionary War command “don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes,” a Welsh army once won out against a superior British force by distinguishing themselves with leeks on their lapels.
The Pokémon character Farfetch’d carries a leek stalk in his prehensile wing-fist, which he uses as a kind of sword. Characters twirling leeks—or, more likely, green spring onions—are popular in Japanese animé.
A medieval recipe for leek and mushroom soup
Here’s a recipe from about 1400, about the time of Chaucer. Here’s the original, in Middle English:
Take Funges and pare hem clere and dyce hem. take leke and shred him smal and do him to seeþ in gode broth color yt wȝt safron and do þer inne pouder fort and serve hit forth.
In modern English:
Take mushrooms, pare and dice them. Take leeks, chop them finely. Steep both in [chicken] broth. Color the soup with saffron, season with strong powder, and serve immediately.
Strong powder was a common seasoning that varied quite a bit from kitchen to kitchen and region to region. The basic ingredients were equal measures of powdered ginger and black pepper, with equal measures of cinnamon and “long pepper” as common additives as well. Long pepper is a relative of Piper negrum, black pepper. Strong powder was a way to get some heat into your food before the New World gave the Old Capsicum chiles.
Here are things people in Wales seem to think are OK to do with leeks.