Although the ingredient may sound exotic, several varieties of barberry shrubs grow throughout North and South America, Asia and Africa. Berberis vulgaris, which produces the most recognized red, sour berries, comes from Europe, where it grows wild. It was originally used for its citrusy tart flavor, but began to fall out of favor as lemons became more available. However, in Iran, barberries are still an essential to the cuisine, including special wedding dishes where the berry serves as a symbolic reminder that life isn't always sweet. Otherwise, their sharp flavor is widley used with dishes containing pilaf and meats, though often barberries make their way into sweet jams and desserts.
While keeping in mind its incredibly sour flavor, it's not at all surprising that barberries are full of ascorbic acid aka vitamin C. They also contain carotenoids (which we convert into vitamin A in our bodies) and zinc. The most interesting compounds in a barberry may be its isoquinolone alkaloids, with berberine being the most famous. The family of compounds is known to have a wide range of properties including anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, and antimutagenic, and laboratory studies suggest that berberine can also have anticonvulsant, hypotensive, and sedative effects. Modern evidence-based science aside, barberries have been used medicinally for centuries as an immune-booster and digestive aid.
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