Vietnamese coriander (Polygonum odoratum) is just one of several Asian herbs becoming more popular in the United States.
There are some new and exciting herbs coming your way! New flavors, new colors, and fascinating new looks for your herb garden. What I am referring to is a new trend in gardening, thanks to changes in our eating patterns.
Recently I had the opportunity to try out a new food while visiting Seattle. Walking down the street at dinnertime, looking for a restaurant, I passed a veritable smorgasbord of ethnic restaurants. Block after block in the area where I stayed, Thai, Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Cambodian, Indian, Mexican, and Cuban were all represented, one beside the other. There wasn’t a pizza place or a fried chicken joint anywhere in sight.
I chose a pho restaurant. Pho (pronounced like fun, without the n) is a Vietnamese soup. And, yes, it is an entire restaurant that serves only soup! This soup is so versatile, so healthy, so low in fat, that the Campbell’s Soup Company has just created a new freshly frozen wholesale Asian soup division called Stockpot. Catherine Horner, president of Stockpot, recently said in an interview on National Public Radio that, “Asian food is where Italian food was twenty years ago.”
Pho is a traditional and complex stock base that includes chicken or beef broth in a tasty mixture of browned onions, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, cardamon, cloves, lemongrass, cilantro, and star anise, plus a dozen other herbs, simmered for hours. When you order pho in a restaurant, it comes filled with rice noodles and your choice of fish, chicken, sliced prime rib, shrimp, or a myriad of other tantalizing ingredients. On the side you are served fresh, crispy bean sprouts, a bountiful sprig of fresh Vietnamese mint, sliced, hot Thai peppers, and a wedge of cooling lime. The flavor is exquisite and no single herb is distinguishable over the others. Instead, a delightful progression of tastes reveal themselves as you eat.
There are numerous growers across the United States who already grow a wide range of these new herbs for the Asian restaurant market. One grower and friend who’s on the cutting edge of this market gave me a tour of his six-acre garden where he grows fresh-cut herbs and vegetables for ethnic restaurant markets in St. Louis. He grows water mint (Mentha aquatica), curry leaf (Murraya koenigii), a shrub from India, water spinach, Japanese cucumbers, herbs and vegetables that grow in water, and other plants from many regions of Asia.
Ethnic groups bring with them very unique preferences for flavor in their food. We are introduced to those flavors in Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Korean, and Indian foods and find that we can grow those new plants in our own gardens. Where once we grew just simple chives, now we can choose from Grolau (Allium schoenoprasum ‘Grolau’), Profusion (A. schoenoprasum ‘Sterile’), Wilau (A. schoenoprasum ‘Wilau’) or many other introduced varieties. And instead of just coriander (the plant is known as cilantro, the seed is coriander) as a single plant, now we can grow Chinese (Coriandrum sativum), Vietnamese (Polygonum odoratum), Mexican (Eryngium foetidum), and several others. All have similar flavors but different growing conditions and each one is specific to a particular ethnic or regional cooking style. There are garlic chives of different kinds depending upon the kind of food you are cooking, dozens of new mints and basils along with Ajowan, Ajmud, and many more herbs that we have yet to discover.
Instead of being satisfied with parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme in the herb garden as we once were, we can add mioga ginger (Zingiber mioga), of which only the flowers are eaten for their delicate flavor, kenikir (Cosmos sulphureus), nepitella (Calamintha nepeta), and hundreds more. This is an exciting time to be a gardener because we now have access to new plants and new flavors that were virtually unknown to us just a few years ago. Be on the lookout for new and interesting plants coming your way and get the garden ready!
Jim Long welcomes readers’ questions or comments; you may e-mail him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tour his gardens at www.longcreekherbs.com.