Asian Herbs and Their Many Uses

This herb garden reflects its owner’s Korean culinary heritage.

| June/July 1994

When Paula Batson wanders through her garden in Southern California, she finds not only inspiration for culinary adventures but also reminders of her cultural heritage. Planted there is a wide assortment of Oriental herbs that she uses often to update her family’s traditional Korean recipes or to put an Asian spin on American dishes. For this third-generation Korean-American, both cooking and gardening are cross-cultural experiences; Paula grows many herbs and uses them creatively in other ethnic and regional cuisines.

Once unfamiliar to most American cooks and difficult to find, Oriental culinary herbs are starting to become part of the American melting pot. The herbs used in traditional Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese cooking increasingly are turning up in plant catalogs and markets. Paula Batson, a senior vice-president of MCA Records in Los Angeles, finds many specialty herbs at local farm markets, but she also wants them available in her own garden, ready for snipping whenever she can indulge her passion for cooking and entertaining.

When she and her husband, Ron Oberman, bought their comfortable California-style ranch home in Los Angeles five years ago, Paula asked me to design and plant a garden for her. From the large raised terrace, looking north, a gentle slope rises behind the house; she pointed out a neglected rose garden and envisioned it transformed into a large herb garden, the perfect vista for the casual alfresco dining the couple enjoys with friends. Today, the garden has attained a graceful maturity.

Oriental Herb Recipes

• Bulgogi (Korean Barbecued Beef)
• Mandu (Korean Dumplings)
• Bindae Duk (Mung Bean Pancakes with Herbs)
• Anna’s Sukkat and Bean Sprout Salad 

The Asian Herbs

The Oriental herb collection is scattered throughout the backyard garden. The strappy leaves and starlike white flowers of garlic chives, also called Chinese chives (Allium tuberosum), set against a low stone wall that separates two levels of the garden, form an attractive background for a bed of salvias and Mexican evening primrose, while ordinary chives (A. schoenoprasum), with their puff of edible lavender blossoms in the spring, edge a bed of culinary herbs. Interplanted among the herbs are several Oriental mustards whose young leaves Paula uses in spring and fall salads. The large, crinkly maroon leaves of Giant Red mustard (Brassica juncea ‘Giant Red’) make a fine contrast to the finely cut light green leaves and narrow ribs of mizuna (B. rapa). Both are handsome companions to red chard, green kale, beets, and the lacy leaves and bright yellow flowers of edible garland chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum coronarium), known as sukkat in Korea. The young leaves of this chrysanthemum are used fresh in salads, cooked with meat, chicken, and vegetable dishes, or steamed like spinach. The ray flowers are sprinkled over salads and used as an attractive garnish. In a neighboring bed to the west is a striking Oriental leaf mustard with the enchanting name of green-in-snow (B. j. ‘Green-in-Snow’). Paula uses its ragged dark green leaves in a nourishing soup. She grows green-in-snow in the winter, although no snow has ever fallen here for this mustard to peep through. As its name implies, however, it is hardy enough that gardeners living in cold climates can sow it in late summer for a fall harvest.

I planted the flat rosette mustard, tatsoi (B. r. ‘Tatsoi’), as a dramatic springtime ground cover to mask a bare spot. Paula picks the young spoon-shaped, shiny dark green leaves for salads or stir-fries clusters of small rosettes. Another edible ground cover, fairly new here but long used in Southeast Asian cuisine, is Houttuynia cordata, a herbaceous perennial with fleshy, heart-shaped leaves that grows best in damp soil and partial shade. I thought Paula would enjoy experimenting with it in the kitchen, but I ruled it out because of its invasiveness after planting some in my own garden. While I have just the spot for it to spread, it is not for all gardens. It may not be for all palates either. Used as a garnish for fish dishes or chopped fresh in salads, it is amazingly pungent. An ornamental variegated cultivar can brighten up shady corners in the garden, but it, too, is invasive. Both forms have a lovely white flower consisting of a stubby spike of minute yellow florets surrounded at the base by four petallike white bracts.

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