Some Herbs You Should Grow This Summer to Liven Up Your Thai Dishes
Basil and sorrel and dill, oh my!
The little container garden in my backyard brings me joy every summer. It reminds me of how our family used to cook and eat when I was growing up in Bangkok. This is not to say that we never ate out, but we did cook our meals at home most of the time. And it usually started with one of us going into the garden in the morning and reporting back to the others what was ready to be harvested that day. That piece of information informed our daily meal plans.
In other words, the garden dictated what we ate.
I also love the word Thais use, ngam1 (งาม), to denote the sense of something being “abundant,” “bountiful,” and “ripe for harvest” in the context of gardening. When I went into the garden before leaving for school and came back in to tell whoever was cooking that day that the mango shoots were ngam, or that the cha-om (Siamese acacia) was ngam, I kind of knew what dinner would include. There would likely be one relish (nam phrik) or another served as part of the dinner ensemble and that it would be served with some fresh, tangy, slightly astringent mango shoots on the side. The cha-om could be turned into cha-om cakes2 and either served as an accompaniment to the classic shrimp paste relish3 or incorporated into a sour curry of cha-om cakes and shrimp4.
In the Greater Chicago area where I live, the summer is the only time each year when I can go out to the backyard to see what’s ngam each day. The window of gardening joy is small each year, considering it’s Chicago. But, man, do I milk the heck out of that tiny window. This morning, for example, the holy basil and lemon basil are super ngam, and I felt happy.
Here are some of the herbs I usually grow every summer.
Mint: It’s one of the easiest herbs to grow. Get some sweet mint (one of the best types to use in Thai dishes; spearmint tastes like toothpaste) and plant it in well-drained soil. As long as you give it enough water to drink and a spot in full sun or partial shade to grow, it becomes ngam all the time—all summer long. With fresh mint on hand, you can make the northeastern minced chicken (or pork) salad (lāp) on page 74 of Simple Thai Food at a moment’s notice. You can also make the dried chile dipping sauce on page 190 of Simple Thai Food and replace the sawtooth coriander with chopped mint. And how about this? Add a few leaves—don’t overdo it—to tom kha kai (page 84 of Simple Thai Food) the way my Grandmother sometimes did.
Dill: Dill is used quite a lot in northern, northeastern, and a few central Thai dishes. I love it. When the dill is ngam, it inspires me to make Isan-style mushroom curry and other Isan dishes.
Dill is generally easy to grow (be careful when the weather is too hot, though, as it can go to seed prematurely). And at the end of the growing season, you can use whatever’s left of it to make all sorts of pickles, including my favorite pickled Red Kuri pumpkin.
Basil: I can get good Thai basil very easily—even in the Chicago western suburbs. As long as there’s an H Mart near me, I don’t feel like I need to grow it. What I want to grow are the types of basil commonly used in Thai cooking that I can rarely get or can’t find at all, namely holy basil (the kaphrao in phat kaphrao; shown above) and lemon basil (shown below).
Lemon basil (maeng lak) is especially important to me because its unique scent is tied to specific classic Thai dishes so tightly there’s hardly any room for flexibility as far as Thai cooks are concerned. No other types of basil can replace it. Holy basil, on the contrary, can be replaced easily. Sure, people who grew up eating phat kaphrao will know right away when kaphrao is absent or replaced with a non-kaphrao entity. But replacing kaphrao with Thai basil or even the regular Mediterranean basil (aka the supermarket basil) in phat kaphrao is far from being catastrophic. The absence of lemon basil, though, breaks hearts and activates lacrimal glands.
One dish that absolutely needs lemon basil is the spicy vegetable soup with shrimp and lemon basil (kaeng liang) on page 89 of Simple Thai Food, the one dish I refuse to make unless I can find lemon basil. Isan cooks will say the same about various northeastern dishes; lemon basil is used in the north and northeast more commonly than holy basil or Thai basil.
Cilantro: I don’t need to grow cilantro for the leaves; I can get them easily at any supermarket. I grow cilantro for the roots because in the US, the roots, an essential Thai ingredient, are chopped off and discarded. I’ve been living in the US long enough to be used to that now, but the Thai people who sometimes visit me in the States gasp in horror when they see rootless supermarket cilantro.
You can use cilantro stems (with the leaves removed) in place of the roots. However, the stems are less aromatic, so you need to use a lot of it to achieve the same result. But then unlike the light beige roots, the green stems can turn some dishes unsightly when you use too many of them.
The summer is the best time to make cilantro roots happen.
Sorrel: I’ve come to love growing sorrel, which is not used in Thai cooking and doesn’t even have a Thai name. But its acidity makes it useful beyond the cuisines of the West. I started using sorrel years ago when I learned to replicate the famous salmon and sorrel dish at Troigros; the herb was new to me then. However, I’ve learned over the years not only how versatile and delicious this herb is, but also how well it lends itself to Thai cooking as a substitute for some indigenous acidic leafy herbs that I can’t find in the US.
The problem with sorrel is that even though it’s not completely unknown, it hasn’t gone mainstream yet, so you’re more likely to find it only at farmers’ markets and, based on my experience, only in the spring. Well, that problem’s solved if you grow your own. Sorrel is perennial, too, which is great because it dies off in the fall but comes back every year.
Any type of sorrel will do. This year, I’m growing red-veined sorrel (shown above). It’s so pretty.
Lastly, you know how herbs behave. They grow a little at a time over several days—then all at once. Sometimes a lot of them are ngam at the same time. This usually inspires me to make the herb-filled grilled fish on page 20 of Flavors of the Southeast Asian Grill or my family’s steamed dumplings on page 33 of Bangkok, which I can serve with lettuce and a mélange of fresh herbs from the garden (eat one bite with one herb and another bite with another herb—such a typical Thai thing to do). Or you can make any of the grilled chicken in Flavors of the Southeast Asian Grill and serve it with fresh herbs, very roughly chopped or simply separated into individual leaves and dressed with fish sauce, lime juice, and dried chilies. Next thing you know, you can’t wait until the next time the “problem” of too many herbs rears its head again.
Even something simple like fresh tomatoes, which are just perfect in the summer, benefit from having too many fresh herbs on hand. In the photo above, I cut up some large heirloom tomatoes into thick slices and dressed them simply with white balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Then I just scattered some chervil, parsley, English thyme, which were super ngam in the garden right now, on top. A bite with chervil tastes different from one with thyme and so on; it’s like eating multiple tomato salads at the same time.
Now, imagine the same plate of sliced tomatoes, but this time dressed with fish sauce, lime juice or tamarind, dried and/or fresh chilies, fresh mint, cilantro, and dill. What if you add a few slices of shallots and sprinkle some ground toasted rice on top? Wouldn’t that be the flavors of northeastern Thailand right there? And, man, wouldn’t that be delicious?
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"Ng” is pronounced like the ng in “sing,” and the “a” is pronounced like the a in “father.”
Page 334 of Bangkok
Page 316 of Bangkok
Page 82 of Bangkok