Herbs are used to garnish and flavour dishes, but some of them have health benefits too! Here are ten common herbs used in Asian cooking, and ways to use them:
A tough fibrous root with yellowish brown skin. This Chinese herb is often brewed together with other herbs in soups that are meant to nourish and improve poor health.
An aromatic herb, there are many types but the most common used in South East Asia are Lemon Basil, Sweet basil, Thai basil and Holy Basil.
How to use:
Lemon Basil has smaller but wider leaves than the sweet and holy basils. It imparts a lemony kick to dishes and is more suited for gentle cooking such as in soups. The seeds of this plant swell up with a jelly-like coating when soaked in water and are often used in drinks and desserts as a pretty garnish.
Sweet Basil has wide, light green leaves and a gentle flavor. It is often used in Western and Mediterranean dishes such as basil and pine nut pesto sauce.
Thai Basil is native to South East Asia. It is often used in Thai curries, including Thai Red curry and Thai Green Curry because the flavour is more stable under high heat. It has narrow leaves, purple stems, pink/purple flowers and an anise-or licorice-like favour. It is used in the popular Taiwanese dish sanbeijie or three-cup chicken. It is often served raw with Vietnamese noodle dishes like pho, so diners can adjust the anise flavor to suit their taste.
Holy Basil is also known by its Indian name Tulsi or tulasi. It has a peppery, clove-like taste and is widely used in Indian dishes and Ayurvedic medicine. In South East Asia it is used in noodle, chicken, pork and seafood dishes.
Fragrant leaves from the Bay Tree, used to flavor soups, stocks, casseroles and stews, especially in Mediterranean and Arab cuisines. Bay leaves can be crushed or used whole. They are not toxic if eaten, but they stay very hard and spiky, even after cooking. If big chunks are swallowed, they can irritate the digestive tract or cause choking. For this reason whole Bay Leaves are usually removed after cooking, before serving.
How to use:
* Bay leaves can be used whole, crushed or tied with other herbs in a bundle called Bouquet Garni , this is often used in French cooking.
* Thai food uses a kind of bay leaf called Bay Laurel leaf in Arab-influenced dishes, such as Massaman Curry.
* North Indian cuisines uses ground bay laurel leaves in rice dishes such as Biryani and it is an ingredient in the spice blend garam masala.
Also known as Chinese parsley or cilantro, fresh coriander is often used as a garnish and needs little to no cooking. Often confused with Chinese celery (kin chye) because they look almost alike. However taste-wise, coriander is the stronger of the two.
Understandably, the herbs are not interchangeable in recipes. Coriander stems and roots are used in fiery Thai cooking. Ground coriander seeds is also one of the key ingredients in curry pastes and mixes in South and South East Asia cooking. The other spices in a curry paste or mix are chilli powder, turmeric, cumin, fenugreek.
A Chinese herb usually simmered with meats to nourish women’s health. It is believed to strengthen the blood and alleviate period pains.
Also known as polygonum leaf and Vietnamese mint, this herb has a distinct lemony scent that cannot be found in any other plant. The leaves are mostly used in a delicious mouth-watering dish called laksa which is how they got their name.
An aromatic herb used for flavouring. It’s best remembered in Thai cuisine where its fragrant quality is used to scent and flavour Tom Yum curries. You can use it whole, sliced or pounded into a paste together with other spice ingredients.
How to use:
* Peel off tough outer leaves, leaving the pale inner leaves.
* Slice off the thick bottom part of the stalk.
* Pound the stalk, especially the bulb to release the aromatic oil. Infuse to get lemongrass tea. Or wrap minced pork or chicken over the bulb to get a fragrant “skewer” for grilled meat.
These have a mild bitter taste and a spinach-like flavour and are important herbs in the traditional ulam dishes of Malaysia. Ulam dishes otherwise known as nasi kerabu, have an assortment of shredded fresh herbs stirred into rice. In Malay herbal tradition, heated noni leaves are put on the chest to sooth coughs and nausea.
You can’t go to a Japanese restaurant and miss this pretty herb – it’s the leaf that lines the plate which holds the sashimi (raw fish) or sushi. Part of the mint family, shiso leaves have a unique taste – somewhat like a cross between mint and celery. It’s used mostly as a condiment or garnish in Japanese cuisine.
This is a popular herbal leaf in Malay and Indonesian cooking where raw herbs are shredded and stirred into rice dishes known as nasi kerabu or nasi ulam. Its mild lemony taste is also used to flavour curries, soups and stews.