PHOTO: mrpbps/Flickr
Lynsey Grosfield
May 26, 2016

Herbs are a funny sort of plant category. Like “fruit,” the meaning of “herb” is different depending on if you are talking to a botanist, a gardener or a chef. To a botanist, an “herbaceous” plant is simply a plant without woody stems that persist year after year or through the seasons. This definition would exclude rosemary, sage and thyme, which are some of the finest exemplars of herbs to gardeners and chefs alike.

So in talking about some of my favorite Asian “herbs,” I’m using a strictly culinary definition of the term. In this case, an herb is simply a plant that has a potent flavor and is, accordingly, used in small quantities for seasoning foods or making tea.

1. Vietnamese Coriander (Persicaria odorata)

This plant is also called Vietnamese mint and Vietnamese cilantro, but all are misnomers, as it’s not a type of mint, cilantro or coriander. However, if there ever was a plant that smelled perfectly of coriander leaves, it would be this one.

Vietnamese coriander (pictured above) has a knobby, semi-succulent appearance, and the blade-like leaves are often variegated with purple. They can be eaten fresh, or cooked.

Grow the plant readily from cuttings, and overwinter it as a houseplant, as it’s a tropical species.

2. Lemongrass (Cymbopogon spp.)

lemongrass
Julian Melville/Flickr

An interesting thing about lemongrass is that its scent mimics honeybees’ attractant pheromone, which the worker bees use to call forager bees back to the hive. I’ve been using an extract of this citrus-scented grass to try to bait a swarm of honeybees into my newly built top-bar beehive. But for those not apiculturally inclined, you can use lemongrass in a wide array of Asian dishes.

3. Shiso (Perilla frutescens var. crispa)

shiso
Wayne Marshall/Flickr

Shiso is a member of the mint family and a staple of Japanese cuisine. Whole leaves are often used to hold wasabi, while seeds and sprouts can also be eaten in various forms. It comes in red, purple and green varieties, and in the temperate zone, can be cultivated as an annual outdoors or as a perennial if taken in. Owing to its vibrant colors and often frilly leaves, shiso makes both a beautiful and practical addition to an herb garden.

4. Kaffir Lime Leaf (Citrus hystrix)

kaffir lime
Katja Schulz/Flickr

This tropical citrus yields small, lumpy fruits, but it’s actually the leaves that get the most use as an herb. They’re often dried and added to dishes like stir-fries or curries. Because kaffir limes are a subtropical or tropical tree, temperate-zone gardeners can only cultivate it in a pot and take it in for the winter. Being small-statured, it takes well to growth in a container and can be kept small enough to live on a windowsill.

Filtered Under Crops, Herbs

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