There is a whole world of herbs outside the ones you most commonly use. Here are five lesser known Southeast Asian herbs to try
Five unusual Southeast Asian herbs
Not to be mistaken for cilantro, which has small, short, rounded leaves, culantro has long, serrated leaves. Both herbs are not closely related, yet culantro, also known as sawtooth herb, features a faint smell of cilantro along with a more robust flavour.
Hailing from the Caribbean, this herb is a wonderful flavour booster, and can be used in many ways such as chopped up and added to beans, stews and rice, or blended with garlic and onions as a marinade for meats. Culantro, which is rich in calcium and contains iron, riboflavin and carotene, can also be prepared in tea form as it is said to be able to help combat flu, diabetes, constipation and fever.
Named after the fishy aromas the leaves emit, this Vietnamese heart-shaped herb is particularly popular in Yunnan, China, where locals use the leaves as a garnish in soups and salads, or cook them with meats and vegetables. In Japan and Korea, the leaves are dried and used to brew tea, as locals believe the herb supports detoxification.
Contrary to what its name suggests, the leaves do not taste minty, but rather has a tangy flavour. Apart from the leaves, the plant’s long, white, tangled roots—which boast an aromatic flavour like ginger or galangal but without the heat—are also edible. They can be eaten raw or cooked. In northeastern India, the roots are often ground into chutneys along with dried fish, chillies and tamarind.
Also known as Chinese ginger, fingerroot is a medicinal (it is believed to be antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory) and culinary herb that comes from the same family as ginger, featuring bright yellow rhizomes. Native to Southeast Asia and China, and cultivated in India, Cambodia, Indonesia and various parts of Asia, fingerroot can grow up to 12cm wide and 50cm long. Fingerroot is said to be named after the shape of its rhizomes, which resemble fingers growing from a main body. It is commonly used in Cambodian curry pastes, particularly fish curry dishes like the famous fish amok—a steamed curry served in banana leaf.
Although this herb is not a member of the mint family, its appearance and fragrance are reminiscent of them, hence its name. Offering a slightly peppery or hot minty taste, this herb, featuring narrow, pointed leaves, is widely used in Vietnamese, Thai and Laotian cuisine such as rice paper rolls, soups like bun thang, and salads like larb. Locally, it is shredded and added to dishes like laksa and some renditions of asam pedas—a spicy fish stew soured with a good hit of tamarind juice.
A member of the carrot and dill family, pennywort, also known as gotu kola, features shovel shaped leaves, and can be eaten raw or cooked. Native to Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka and Australia, this herb is used differently in various countries. For instance, it is commonly eaten as a leafy green in Sri Lankan cuisine, but is used to brew teas and blended into refreshing drinks in Vietnam. This herb is also prized for its medicinal value—pennywort is said to be able to help improve ailing memory, arthritis, and many other conditions.