The Naming of Foods

In my window box: Vietnamese mint, spearmint, oregano, rosemary.

In my window box: Vietnamese mint, spearmint, oregano, rosemary.

Persicaria odorata, usually called Vietnamese mint or Vietnamese coriander in the States, is an herb used in much Southeast Asian cooking. It is neither mint not coriander, but then again Rocky Mountain oysters ain’t shellfish, either. Misnaming foods is a long and venerable tradition. Absolutely no one seems able to agree on what to call P. odorata, which can make it hard to shop for. In Singapore it’s called ‘laksa leaf’ and in Thailand it’s pak pai. What it actually is, is hard to describe. I suck at describing flavours. If I said it was ‘soapy’ would that incline you to try it? How about if I told you Vietnamese monks eat a lot of it because it is believed to repress sexual urges? It has a kind of hotness to it without resembling chilli, a kind of mint burn with a coriander odor. Anyhow, I have only very rarely seen it for sale even in Asian markets, so you might be better off growing it. In fact I first encountered it being grown in bowls of water on the back porch of a sunny Melbourne squat.

Vietnamese mintSpeaking of those days, Vietnamese mint was very useful for dressing up the kind of cuisine of poverty we were thriving on. Back then you could buy (also from Asian markets) a loaf of unsliced white bread for a dollar. It was crucial that the bread be unsliced, because then you could hack off a two inch thick wedge, dress it with butter and a little vegemite or promite, and several whole leaves of P. odorata. Poor food heaven. That kept the blues away.

The problem I have had with it is simply that its taste is too strong, too distinctive. It complements some foods, and repulses others (a notable success was as garnish on Leslie’s crumbled pork pizza). So I usually end up growing more than I can ever use, which led me to thinking about what I do with the other herb I always have too much of, basil.

Vietnamese Mint Pesto

1 handful of Vietnamese mint leaves, chopped

1 handful of fresh basil leaves, chopped

1 clove of garlic, sliced

several raw peanuts, say 12

olive oil

fish sauce

pre groundI make this pesto with peanuts instead of pine nuts because I am trying to maintain an Asian theme, and pine nuts are a very dominating taste in a traditional pesto. I only use a bare minimum of olive oil, just enough to dampen it, and about a teaspoon of fish sauce. Pound it all together in a mortar and pestle. This is divine over spaghetti or other noodles.

I was pretty proud of this recipe. I came up with it all by myself, which is pretty rare. I then learned what not to do when you invent a new recipe all by yourself: google it. You are bound to be crushed.

4 comments to The Naming of Foods

  • “Hot celibate minty coriander soap”? Count ME in. :)

    Sounds delicious. If you have any left, bring a thimbleful to SR-512, I would love to try it (and I question my ability to find it).

  • War Pig

    Since I don’t get along too well with raw peanuts (incredible gas – 5 times worse than kielbasa and sauerkraut), I wonder what this would be like with chickpeas instead of raw peanuts? Of course, Vietnamese mint will be hard to find here in the wilds of Ohio. I may substitute wild mint and a little parsley for it if I cannot find it in the local Asian markets. Basil – I have a ton and a half of basil. I have enough basil and especially zucchini to feed Rwanda AND Somalia. I have taken to hiding zucchini in my neighbor’s cars if they leave them unlocked.

    Ever fry zucchini flowers? Delicious.

    I remember the mint from Viet Nam and the War in the local foods there and then. Like fishhead sauce, it was everywhere. I always thought the heat factor and taste reminded me of wild mint with lots of white pepper on it. The soapy taste may come from its thickening qualities in soups and stuff. Reminds me of okra, in a way. Sort of peppery taste, soapy feel, good thickener.

    PS: Called an old GI pal who married a SVN girl during the War. She raises the mint and will let me have enough to make one recipe. I was going to see him in a week or two, anyway.

  • @Warpig – funny you should mention that, I fried my first zucchini flowers in tempura this weekend. They were great.

  • Also, if you want to grow your own, just propagate a stem in water until roots appear.