November 29, 2015


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Food & Drink

Asian herbs add zing that will take your taste buds on a trip to warmer climes

Kevin Trinh arranges packages of fresh herbs at Lucky Supermarket.


Kevin Trinh arranges packages of fresh herbs at Lucky Supermarket. Purchase Photo Print

In the middle of a long, cold winter, it's tempting to throw financial caution to the wind and max out the credit card on a week on a beach somewhere warm.

Most of us, however, don't have the means to afford a tropical vacation, never mind the time. So we have to come up with ways to convince our brains and bodies it's actually warmer than it is outside.

Getting lots of sun will definitely make you happier, even when it's -15 C outside. So will consuming lots of produce, which is not just healthy, but has the power to evoke warmer climates by overwhelming your olfactory, gustatory and tactile senses.

Personally, I find the best produce for this purpose to be pungent Asian herbs, which are relatively inexpensive and readily available in increasing variety at Asian grocers.

While many home chefs are used to adding handful of Thai basil, mint or cilantro leaves to stir-fries and noodle dishes, the raw, unwilted herbs are even more refreshing in a salad.

When shopping for herbs, choose unblemished leaves without dark spots. Store cilantro upright in your fridge, with the stems in a centimetre or two of water, and keep other herbs in an air-tight container or tightly wrapped in plastic.

Here's a primer on what you may encounter in the produce aisles of Asian grocers:



Also known as: Coriander

A staple in southeast Asian and Latin American cuisines, cilantro adds zest to salads, complexity to soups and can be puréed -- raw or cooked -- into pestos or salsas. Cilantro may be the world's versatile herb, but you either love it or you hate it: It tastes like soap to roughly one in six people on the planet, recent genetic studies suggest.


Thai basil

Also known as: Asian basil

No bowl of Vietnamese beef noodle soup would be complete without a few sprigs of pointy-leaved, purple-green Thai basil, which has a licorice-like flavour that's less intense when it's cooked. It's best eaten raw in salad rolls and salads. Avoid buying bunches with blotchy leaves and remove any woody stalks.



Also known as: Vietnamese mint

While there are a number of mint varieties from southeast Asia, what you're most likely to encounter in an Asian grocer is spearmint, which is more intense than the garden mint you'd place in your mojito. Pick the leaves off the woody stems before use.



Also known as: Shiso

Those tapered, jagged-edged green leaves used as a garnish for slices of sashimi are tasty and aromatic on their own. In groceries, you're most likely to encounter the reddish-purple variety, which tastes faintly of anise or cinnamon. Perilla leaves can be relatively tough, so shred or chiffonade them before tossing them into salads.


Flowering chives

Also known as: Chinese or garlic chives

The long, substantial chives with yellow ends where the flowers will bud taste stronger than garden chives but are less strong than garlic scapes. Chop and use in stir-fries in place of green beans -- or to add garlicky flavour.


Kaffir leaf

Also known as: Kaffir lime leaf

A staple of Thai cuisine, Kaffir lime imparts a citrusy flavour to soups and stews. It's too tough to be eaten on its own, so remove it from the bowl before eating, just as you would a bay leaf. A little goes a long way; freeze what you don't need.



Also known as: Sawtooth herb, Mexican coriander

Not to be confused with cilantro, culantro has long, broad leaves with sawtoothed edges and may be incorrectly labelled "dandelion." It's not astringent like dandelion, but earthy and sometimes very strong. Shred in big chunks into salads or soups.



Also known as: Vietnamese coriander, rau ram

Narrow, pointy polygonum leaves are intensely lemony. Add a few of these green leaves to milder herbs such as Thai basil or cilantro within an Asian salad. May also be used to accompany soups as a garnish.


Rice paddy herb

Also known as: Ngo om

These yellowish-green stalks with very small round leaves taste a bit like lemon and cumin, but not really like either. This herb is typically added to soups.


Fish mint

Also known as: Vap ca

Easily the weirdest commonly available Vietnamese herb, fish mint has an intensely bright taste, reminiscent of anchovies. On its own, it's awful. But just like polygonum, it adds bright notes to salads when it's used in small quantities with other, milder herbs. Vegetarians and vegans who miss the taste of fish ought to check it out.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 26, 2014 D1


Updated on Wednesday, February 26, 2014 at 7:36 AM CST: Replaces photo, changes headline, formats text

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