A Trip to the Herb Garden Can Take You Around the World
We are all so lucky to be cooking in this day and age. Our pantry alone reflects a great global transformation in American food: No matter what your ethnic background or home country is, your go-to ingredients may well include soy sauce, sriracha, harissa, smoked paprika, chiles en adobo, and perhaps an Asian noodle or two. Factor in a selection of oils (coconut oil, we’ve got you covered) that gives us alternatives to the heavier saturated fats found in butter and cream as well as local, sustainable sources of meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, and milk, and the world’s our oyster, culinarily speaking.
But as much as I’d like to swing from a Sunday-night Thai green curry to a south Indian or Mexican dish later in the week, that sort of cooking doesn’t happen often in my kitchen—not because I can’t put my hands on the pantry ingredients I need but because I’m lacking the fresh herbs that infuse Southeast Asian food and more with their distinct flavors.
In season, it’s possible to find Thai basil and lemongrass—even shiso, on occasion—among the more usual herb offerings at the New York City Greenmarkets. But fresh kaffir lime leaves, curry leaves, rau ram, epazote, or Mexican oregano? Not so much. I have to schlep to a specialty market for those, and all too often, the offerings aren’t as fresh as I’d like, or their provenance is an utter mystery—there’s no way of knowing where they’re from, how they’ve been handled, or whether they’re organic.
All that’s about to change. This year, I’m making room in the garden for unusual herbs that will yield fistfuls of flavor. They’ll take me around the world. Another plus: Many herbs are not just drought-tolerant but prefer hot, sunny, dry conditions. Overwatering will diffuse their fragrance and flavor—what you’re growing them for, in other words. The herbs below are available as seeds or young plants from online sources, but check your local nurseries or seed libraries first—you may find what you’re looking for (almost) in your own backyard.
This herb comes from the so-called curry leaf plant (Murraya koenigii), a small shrubby tree native to southern India and Ceylon. The glossy little leaves look a bit like bay leaves and have a spicy, citrusy flavor and aroma. I like to purée them with shallot, fresh lime juice, safflower oil, and a bit of chopped serrano chile and sugar. The resulting vinaigrette is great on salads or drizzled over grilled summer vegetables, chicken, or fish.
If you love Mexican bean dishes, tomatillo salsa, or the green cooking sauce called mole verde, you’re familiar with epazote and its pungent—and intriguing—flavor and aroma that’s minty, citrusy, and earthy all at once. The herb is widely cultivated in central and southern Mexico, as well as the northern countries of South America and the Caribbean. When fresh, the herb is best added to the pot toward the end of cooking, or else it can be bitter. “Once established, it should be possible to overwinter plants indoors,” writes Jill Norman in Herbs & Spices: The Cook’s Reference. This means I can eat Diana Kennedy’s tortilla soup year-round.
What we think of as oregano is native to the Mediterranean. Its sharp, peppery warmth became popular—along with pizza—in the U.S. after World War II. Mexican oregano is not a true Mediterranean oregano but an unrelated New World plant that has a similar flavor and aroma. It’s more citrusy and grassy, though (it’s in the verbena family), and has a great affinity for chiles, cumin, and cilantro.
This herb is also sold as Vietnamese cilantro or coriander, Vietnamese mint, or laksa leaf. Its fragrance and flavor are similar to those of cilantro, but it’s more citrusy and penetrating, with a peppery-hot afternote. It’s used with seafood, chicken, and pork dishes and in lettuce wraps, noodle soups, and a crisp, crunchy green papaya salad—the sort of thing I could live on all summer long.
No basil stores especially well, but Asian varieties seem to lose their scent more quickly than other types—reason alone to grow them. Purple-stemmed Thai basil is extremely aromatic, with strong anise and cinnamon notes. You’ll find it in red and green curries, and it’s used in generous amounts in stir-fries. Lemon basil has a clean, lemony scent—scatter it over grilled fish or pork or scallop kebabs. Thai lemon basil (aka hairy basil or green holy basil) is peppery and lemony in flavor. It’s stirred into noodles or fish curries just before serving. Holy basil, which is called tulsi in India and by those who follow ayurvedic practice, is also very fragrant, with a spicy-sweet pungency all its own, along with hints of mint and camphor. It’s wonderful in drunken noodles.