5 Asian herbs for your garden, that will dress up your dishes
If you love to cook Asian food at home, but have trouble tracking down authentic herbs, you can buy the seeds online and grow decorative and tasty Asian herbs in your own garden. This selection will help replicate dishes from Vietnam, Thailand and other Asian countries
This fragrant plant, called saranae in Thailand, is the most deliciously sweet and intense member of the mint family. The leaves are hairless, with a smaller, more rounded shape than common mint. Like most mints, this plant also tends to spread if not planted in a container, but it stays closer to the ground, and consequently makes good ground cover. It is easy to cultivate. The seeds can be purchased from many Asian seed suppliers online, and some nurseries also have seedlings that can be planted out. Thai mint can be planted in a pot or in its own part of the garden so it can spread out, and needs sun and water to thrive. Otherwise it will look after itself. Thai mint has many uses in Asian cooking. Thai mint can be picked, washed and added to salads just as it is, or chopped and sprinkled over coleslaw and potato salad. Thai mint can also be added to soups, omelets and stir fries, and can be substituted in recipes where common mint is used, such as mint sauce and mint tea.
This is similar to European sweet basil in many ways, but it has a more liquorice flavour and can be included in slow cooking recipes without losing its strength. Also known as horapha, Thai basil is a decorative and graceful plant, with purple stems and spearhead shaped sage-green leaves, more understated than the large shiny green leaves of regular basil. It needs to be planted in a sunny spot, and not over watered. Harvest Thai basil from the top of the plant so it grows into an abundant bush of leaves. Thai basil can be used in dishes where regular basil is used, creating deeper flavours in pizza sauce and pesto. As it is such an abundant plant, it can also be used as a side vegetable, or in stir fries.
Elegant, slender lemongrass is a beautiful feature plant in your garden as well as an aromatic ingredient in Asian cooking. Planted singly or in groups or rows, lemongrass grows into a graceful grassy bush over three feet high, Lemongrass thrives in full sun and humidity, as it naturally grows in tropical climates. The sharp citrus flavour really does impart a lemon tang to the dishes in which it is used and it is a regular feature in Asian soups and seafood dishes. Anywhere you use lemons in cooking you can use lemongrass. But be warned – harvesting lemongrass is a tricky business. You can cut the long grassy stems and use them for making lemongrass tea, but it is the tiny white heart of the bulbous stem that you need for most recipes. To prepare for cooking, cut off the tip of the white bulb and most of the tough green stem. You will peel off a lot of tough fibre before you reach the tiny soft part which is your goal. Otherwise, you can treat the white bulb like a garlic clove and press it with a knife blade to release the flavours. The bulb, and pieces of stem, can be used to infuse milk, make tea or add lemon flavour to other dishes. It is a tough textured plant and does not soften in cooking, so it is usually just added for flavour and removed before serving. The easiest way is to tie the pieces of stem and grassy leaves into a piece of muslin before adding it to your cooking. Then it can be quickly removed.
This rhizome is a member of the ginger family, but has a sharper, stronger, more fiery flavour. Shaped something like an eagle claw, galangal is popular in South East Asia, and an ingredient in red curry paste and satay. Like ginger, the edible rhizome grows beneath the ground, and like ginger, you can start a galangal plant from a piece of the rhizome. The plant needs sun, well drained soil and prefers tropical conditions. In cooler climates it can be grown in a greenhouse or poly-tunnel. As a garden plant it is elegant and decorative with tropical white flowers. Preparation for cooking is similar to ginger. Cut, peel and grate the rhizome, before added the grated material to soups. curries, satays or marinades. It can be thinly sliced and added to fruit and vegetable salads, and imparts a fresh zingy flavour to fish and meat dishes. It is not recommended as a substitute for ginger in sweet dishes like gingerbread.
This is a beautiful, leafy plant that looks pretty in the garden or in pots and enjoys cooler conditions than most Asian herbs prefer as well as in the warmer months. Coriander can be grown from seed or seedlings, and likes regular watering in a well drained soil. Coriander is also known as cilantro, and is a popular ingredient in most parts of the world as well as Asia. In Asia it can be used as a vegetable or as an herb. One of the nicest ways to enjoy coriander is to steam long sprigs with a vegetable like carrots or parsnips. Just snip off the leaves or stalks as you need them and the plant will continue to produce. Coriander can be added to soups, stir fries, curries and salads. Coriander is an important ingredient in delicious Vietnamese pork rolls, and without it these rolls would just not taste authentic.
There are many other Asian herbs and spices you can add to your Asian cooking, but with these five basic herbs, you can create many dishes with an authentic Asian flavour right out of your own garden.