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Watercress is a pungent herb of the mustard family--a cruciferous vegetable--that originated in the Middle East. Both Xenophon, the ancient Greek general, and the Persian King Xerxes ordered their soldiers to eat it to keep them healthy. The Greeks additionally believed that "Eating cress makes one witty"--and certainly the Greeks demonstrated their wit at Marathon when they unexpectedly defeated the Persians in a critical battle.
Its family name Nasturtium means "nose twister" in Latin--for its head snapping bite--and Romans ate it in the optimistic belief that it would prevent baldness--an old wives tale that they carried to early Britain.
Growing in shallow water, as it does, it grew wild in abundance--but was finally cultivated in the mid 16th century, probably in Germany.
By the 17th century, watercress soup in particular had gained a very good name in England. Nicholas Culpeper, in his Complete Herbal writes that cress soup was a good remedy to cleanse the blood in the spring and help headaches. Herbalist Gerard (1633) recommended it for the "greensickness of maidens." And Francis Bacon advised that it would restore youthfulness to aging women.
Overstatements, certainly, and yet watercress is so rich in iron that the leaves and stems turn purpley brown if they are exposed too long to air. And it is packed with vitamins A and C.
It was introduced to China by Europeans around the end of the 19th century--and the Chinese adore it...but only cooked and mostly only in soups. It goes by a name there that means "western water vegetable"--and competes with rice in some places for planting space.