Asian Herbs and Their Many Uses

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.

Another pungent spreader that I omitted from Paula’s Oriental collection for the same reason is Vietnamese rau ram (Polygonum odoratum). Used as a “souring herb” in Southeast Asian cooking, its hot, peppery taste flavors soups, and the leafy stems are used as a fresh garnish and as a substitute for coriander. Vivid red stems and lance-shaped leaves etched with red make it an attractive ground cover for those who have a shady, moist area to grow a vigorous, unrestrained plant.

Two better-behaved Oriental herbs, planted in a bed to the far right and shaded by an evergreen hedge, are mitsuba (Cryptotaenia japonica) and Vietnamese balm (Elsholtzia ciliata), both of which Paula finds useful in the kitchen. Mitsuba, also known as Japanese parsley, tastes like mild Italian parsley crossed with celery. It is a perennial, but I treat it as an annual in our climate because it tends to peter out in the heat. Its native habitat in Japan is woodlands, so I grow it accordingly. If you must grow it in the sun, place it between two taller herbs to shade its leaves. The annual Vietnamese balm has citrus-scented leaves and thus could also be planted in a bed devoted to lemon-mimic herbs.

Both red and green shiso (Perilla frutescens) grow in the shade in Paula’s garden; pinching out the flowers prevents the leaves from becoming tough. At the end of the growing season, Paula allows the green shiso to go to seed, ensuring plenty of volunteers the following spring. The red form, also known as beefsteak plant, is really closer in color to wine than to meat. Deep maroon leaves make it an excellent accent plant, particularly next to plants with variegated foliage such as the houttuynia mentioned above. Both Paula and her husband, who is also an executive in the recording industry, enjoy dining in Japanese restaurants, and she delights in re-creating Japanese-style salads with the fresh green shiso.

Spearmint grows in part shade at the far edge of the garden near a water spigot in a large pot sunk into the ground to contain its roots. Its dark green leaves spill over a little stone wall. A slow-bolting variety of cilantro (Coriandrum sativum), sometimes called Chinese parsley, and reddish-stemmed Thai basil are planted in the sunny bed just below an impressive stand of lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus), a tropical perennial grass with 1/2-inch-wide leaves, 2 to 3 feet long, which Paula snips for Asian pesto and Thai soups. Kaffir lime, or makrut (Citrus hystrix), whose curiously indented leaves are used in Thai and Indonesian cuisines, grows in a large pot near the lemongrass. The tree, which rises above the pot about 3 feet, has mottled, pebbly green fruit; its rind is also edible and is used fresh.

The Garden Setting

Fitting these and many other herbs into Paula’s garden was a pleasure because so many aesthetic elements were already in place. Stone and brick steps divide the garden into east and west sides, and a beautiful old live oak tree with a large canopy is beyond the highest bed on the right side of the garden; the steps are flanked at the top of the hill by an old grapefruit tree on one side and a lemon on the other. A buff-colored fieldstone wall, chest-high, frames the left side of the garden and is a perfect backdrop for cascading prostrate rosemary and the blue-green foliage of Teucrium majoricum. The terraced beds that climb the slope on either side of the steps provide excellent drainage.

All the basic herbs are planted in these beds, with many interesting varieties represented. Culinary sages include clary and Berggarten, and a collection of thymes comprises French, golden, silver, lime, caraway, and creeping scarlet in addition to plain Thymus vulgaris. Beside the prostrate rosemary is the pink-flowering Jean Davis lavender. Basils include sweet, Purple Ruffles, and the diminutive Spicy Globe, Paula’s favorite for making pesto. Recently, she has been experimenting with growing the purple-veined African Blue basil, the camphorous East Indian basil (Ocimum gratissimum), and Mrs. Burns’ Famous Lemon basil, a self-seeding variety that has been grown for sixty years in southeastern New Mexico.

Our mild climate lets us grow many herbs that may seem exotic to gardeners in other parts of the country. Paula grows Jasmine sambac ‘Grand Duke of Tuscany’, a slow-growing evergreen climbing shrub, and uses its flowers to make jasmine tea. An allspice tree (Pimenta dioica), the thymelike za’tar (Thymbra spicata), saffron crocus (Crocus sativus), and caper bush (Capparis spi­no­sa) all grow in her garden. The tender perennial Roman mint (Micro­meria sp.) and Costa Rican mint bush (Satureja viminea), a shrublike perennial, put on a fine display in the spring. Tiny strawberries from a small patch of white-flowering fraises des bois enhance the couple’s morning granola.

Paula’s salad fixings include arugula, chervil, New Zealand spinach, and salad burnet as well as Rossano radicchio, a heat-resistant, softball-sized chicory that’s just right for small spaces. She can dress them up with an assortment of edible flowers, from pink-, white-, and blue-flowered hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) to anise-flavored Korean mint (Agastache rugosa), clove pinks, and spicy Empress of India nasturtiums.

The venerable live oak, while contributing a sense of majesty to the garden, was a limiting factor. Because an established live oak tree shouldn’t be watered, I didn’t want to plant anything directly under it, and I had to keep any watering well outside the drip line. Thus, the bed closest to the oak contains a collection of drought-tolerant plants. Ornamental salvias–including the red-flowering Salvia regla, salmon-pink S. coccinea ‘Brenthurst’, intense gentian blue S. cacaliaefolia, pale violet S. hians, light blue S. leucophylla ‘Point Sal’, and claret-colored S. vanhoutii–are planted alongside lavenders, Job’s-tears (Coix lacryma-jobi), silver-leaved curry plant (Helichrysum italicum) with tiny flowers of soft yellow, and rose campion. The oak earns its keep by providing a leaf mulch for the rest of the garden.

The beds to the west of the pathway contain many ornamental herbs in complementary colors, which provide bouquets for indoor arrangements and for drying. Paula uses yellow, white, and pink yarrow, Powis Castle artemisia, and the beautiful dusty-rose-and-pale-green bracts of Origanum libanoticum in her flower arrangements. This section also furnishes chamomile flowers for a cup of tea to help her relax after a hectic day.

Up the hill from these flowers is a stand of shiny green angelica; Paula snips young leaves into salads and dries its seed heads for herbal bouquets. Next to the angelica is a 5-foot hedge of glistening bronze fennel. To keep this perennial bushy, Paula cuts it back frequently, and she dries the stalks to throw on the fire when grilling whole fish.

The way in which this garden combines usefulness and attractiveness is its special charm. Pepino melons, golden flashed with purple, grow next to the sweeter-fleshed French Charen­tais melons, which are striped in different shades of green; Paula loves them in fruit salads with a dressing flavored with lemon balm, lemon verbena, or apricot-scented geraniums. A bed of Jerusalem artichokes supplies cheerful yellow sunflowers for cutting as well as edible tubers, which she pickles. The old grapefruit tree has been rejuvenated and coaxed into productiveness again; Paula likes to garnish the grapefruit halves with variegated leaves of pineapple mint or pungent mahogany center leaves of chocolate mint.

The Kitchen Setting

Paula travels extensively, dining out often, and she likes to re-create dishes that she has enjoyed in restaurants from Nashville to New York, London to Paris, Texas to Tuscany. In Tuscany, Paula and Ron were served delicious grilled vegetables, and now a rotisserie and grill are a prominent feature on their terrace. Paula dries prunings of culinary herbs to throw on the grill; the flavored smoke lends subtle complexity to the food as it cooks.

Paula’s kitchen contains gleaming bottles of dried herb blends, herbal olive oil, and jewellike red and white herb vinegars. Her flavorful, savory menus contain no added salt and little fat. Her culinary style is often a hybrid, and her modern versions of traditional Oriental dishes fit comfortably into the couple’s light and healthy American lifestyle.

Both of Paula’s parents were born in Hawaii of Korean descent, so although all of her family lives in the United States, her Korean ties are strong, including the culinary ones. Paula was brought up in a family of talented cooks who care about their heritage, and she continues the tradition, whether she is preparing traditional family recipes or creating new dishes.

Korean food is a robust and wholesome cuisine, utilizing beef, pork, chicken, and fish along with vegetables, soy beans, and chiles. Like Chinese and Japanese cuisines, Korean food is generally cut up in pieces that can be easily handled with chopsticks. Rice is a staple. Soy sauce, garlic, and ginger are basic flavorings, as is

kim chee: fermented shred­­ded cabbage, cucumber, or radish. According to Paula, more than 300 varieties of kim chee exist; prepared by Korean hands, kim chee is a respected and seasonal culinary art and an important feature of the Korean table.

A family recipe for Mandu (below), a delicious soup with tiny dumplings, is redolent with garlic chives, Thai and purple basils, cilantro, and parsley. The marinade for her mother’s traditional Bulgogi beef uses generous amounts of garlic; Paula has put her own stamp on the dish with her unusual combination of garlic chives and French thyme.

With their busy schedules, many nights Paula and Ron can be found preparing a quick dinner in the kitchen at 10 p.m. But the late hours don’t deter Paula, who will make that dash to the garden by moonlight if she has to. It was a delight for me to design a garden for someone so enthusiastic about both gardening and cooking.


The following mail-order nurseries carry many different Oriental herbs.

• Kitazawa Seed Co., 1111 Chapman St., San Jose, CA 95126. Catalog free.
• Nichols Garden Nursery, 1190 N. Pacific Hwy., Albany, OR 97321-4598. Catalog free.
• Shepherd’s Garden Seeds, 30 Irene St., Torrington, CO 06790. Catalog $1.

Carole Saville is a Los Angeles writer and landscape designer who specializes in herbs.

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