Herbs are aromatic plants that are generally used for garnishing and flavouring. Some herbs also have medicinal properties while some are used as fragrances. Herbs are mostly leaves, though they can include grasses, berries, stems and roots. In cooking they enhance the flavour as well as provide health benefits. Unlike greens they are used in small quantities. Coming up is a glossary of the herbs from around the world, which I have come across. This is based on the herbs used for culinary purposes. There are innumerable herbs put to medicinal use, which does not come under the purview of this post.
Back in India the curry leaves, coriander leaves or cilantro, bay leaf and mint are the only herbs that I have used. After moving to Qatar, I got to know parsely, thyme, basil, sage, marjoram, dill (all of which I grew in my garden), rosemary (still trying) and pandan leaves. Pandan leaves which are used in South Asian cuisine as well as in Srilankan cuisine are a must try. They have such a unique and tempting flavour. They are available at Family Food Center in Qatar.
So here we go…
1 ) Basil
Think basil and immediately pesto comes to mind. The most common basil used in Mediterranean cuisine and most of the world is the sweet basil. This is different from the holy basil or Tulsi revered by the Hindus. Other than this there is the Thai basil as well as the lemon basil both used in South East Asia.
Recent studies show that basil is rich is phenolic compounds and polyphenols. It is rich in anti oxidants. It helps in reducing inflammation, has anti-aging and anti-bacterial properties. Thus apart from providing flavour it has immense health benefits. Basil is normally added at the end of cooking, as cooking quickly destroys the flavour.
2 ) Bay leaf
There are different types of bay leaves but the most common ones are the bay laurel and Indian bay leaf. Bay laurel is mainly used in Mediterranean and Brazilian cuisine to flavour soups, stews etc. Indian Bay leaves are mostly used in the dry form in dishes such as biriyanis.
In the South Indian State of Kerala, fresh bay leaves are made into a pouch and used as a case for steaming certain foods. Bay leaves have a mild, delicate flavour which they do not lose even when dried. They are normally added whole and removed from the dish after cooking.
Bay leaf helps in releasing toxins from the body by promoting urination. The enzymes contained in bay leaves may soothe irritable bowel syndrome and reduce bloating and gas. Early research suggests that taking ground bay leaf twice daily along with medication for diabetes can lower pre-meal blood sugar levels, as well as levels of cholesterol.
3 ) Borage
Also known as star flower, it is predominantly found in the Mediterranean region. The leaves and stems are hairy and the flowers are mostly blue in color although pink and white flowers are also seen. Its leaves, flower and seeds are all used in medicine.
Traditionally borage was cultivated for culinary and medicinal uses though today it is mainly cultivated for oil seed production. It has a cucumber like taste and is used in salads or as a garnish. The flower which has a honey like taste is used to decorate desserts.
4 ) Celery
Celery is a cool weather crop with high water content. All the parts of the plant, the stalk, leaves, root and seeds are beneficial for us. It is known to lower inflammation and enhance the immune system.
It contains a whole lot of vitamins and minerals as well as fibre . The vitamins present are Vitamin A, B6, C, K, niacin and riboflavin. In minerals it contains Potassium, Copper, Manganese, Phosphorous, Magnesium and Calcium. It is also a rich source of flavanoids and antioxidants.
The stalks are used as vegetable. It is the staple in many soups. The leaves are strongly flavoured and are used to add mild spicy flavour to foods. Celery seeds contain valuable essential oils, used in herbal medicine as well as in the perfume industry.
The best way to use celery is to steam it, as steaming retains most of it nutrients. Another fact to note is that celery is heavily sprinkled with pesticides, and so it is always better to go organic or grow your own.
5 ) Chervil
Chervil is a delicate herb, very closely related to parsely. It is used particularly in France to season poultry, sea food , soups and sauces. Chervil is one of the constituent of fines herbes, along with tarragon, chives and parsely which are essential in French cooking. It is also added to the food at the end to preserve its flavour.
The leaves, dried parts of the flower as well as the juice are used to make medicine. It is used for fluid retention, coughs, digestion problems and high blood pressure. It is a good source of Calcium and Potassium.
6 ) Chives
Chives belong to the allium family which includes onions, garlic, leeks and scallions. It is a nutrient dense food , low in calories but high in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. It contains Vitamins A, C, K and also folate, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium and choline.
Chives help in reducing inflammation, increase bone strength and enhance the immune system. It is believed to reduce oxidative stress in the eyes, and to slow the development of cataracts. Early studies suggest that chives may help in preventing certain types of cancer.
Generally the scapes or stems are used as herb, though the flowers are also used in salads or blossom vinegars. The flowers are often used in ornamental dry bouquets. Chives go well with cheese and eggs, and they are normally added at the end of the cooking process to preserve the flavour.
7 ) Cilantro
Cilantro or Coriander leaves as we call it in India , is also called Chinese Parsely. It is the main herb used in India. Apart from garnishing, we make varieties of chutneys out of it. It is the main flavouring ingredient in lots of dishes, like biriyani. Though the whole plant is edible, the leaves and seeds are preferred.
Corriander leaves contain ample quantities of Vitamins A& C, and minerals Iron , Calcium and Phosphorous. It detoxifies the body , by getting rid of unwanted toxins. Aids digestion and prevents stomach disorders like nausea and vomitting. It helps to prevent macular degeneration or cataract of the eyes.
Corriander seeds when powdered form the main spice of Indian dishes. In South India a tea made of corriander seeds and dry ginger called Sukku malli Coffee is consumed when people suffer from colds and headaches.
Almost every home in South India has a curry leaf tree. If you have to temper your gravies or chutneys, curry leaves are a must. The flavour that emanates when tempering is done using curry leaves is irresistable. Apart from that they are also used to make chutneys and spice powders, like sambar powder.
Like other herbs curry leaves too contain ample quantities of Vitamins A, B, C and E apart from antioxidants and minerals Iron and Calcium. Every South Indian family has its own recipe to prepare hair oil from curry leaves. It is considered a very valuable remedy for premature greying. It also darkens the hair and makes them lustrous.
9 ) Dill
Dill is a weedy herb, with a strong taste and flavour. It is ubiquitous herb of Russia and Ukraine, where they add dill in anything and everything. You could get to see dill in french fries, pizzas, sushi, hummus and just about anything you would never dream of adding dill in. Such is the obsession for dill in that part of the world.
I bought dill only once, as I came to know it paired well with fish. But I felt it was too strong for our taste buds. Dill contains significant amounts of Vitamins A & C, and minerals Calcium, Manganese and Iron. It also contains excellent amounts of of other phytonutrients such as fiber, niacin, phosphorus, copper, riboflavin, vitamin B6, magnesium, and potassium. It had compounds that not only fought bacteria but also cancer. So its high time we add dill to our diets.
10 ) Fennel
Fennel is an aromatic perennial herb native to the Mediterranean , but is now found all over the world. The bulb, foliage as well as the seeds are used in cooking. The bulb is sauteed, grilled or eaten raw. The tender leaves are used for garnishing.
In the Indian Subcontinent fennel seeds are mainly used in cooking. It is believed to aid in digestion, and hence had as an after meal digestive. It is a rich source of protein, dietary fiber, B vitamins, and several dietary minerals like Calcium, Iron, Magnesium and Manganese.
Fennel provides relief to various digestive problems like heartburn, bloating, intestinal gas and colic in infants. It also helps in reducing menstrual pains. Fennel oil is used in the cosmetic industry.
But webmd cautions that fennel might act like estrogen, and so if you have any hormone sensitive condition like fibroids, endometriosis, cancers etc which may worsen with estrogen exposure, you should avoid fennel.
11 ) Lemon grass
Lemon grass is a herb that belongs to the grass family, and has a citrus flavour. It is mainly used in South East Asian Cuisine. The stems and the leaf buds are used in cooking. It goes well with sea foods and soups. The Stalks and sometimes the leaves are used in making tea which is very refreshing and rejuvenating. The stems and flower buds are also used in salads.
Lemon grass has diuretic properties that help in detoxifying the body. Its antimicrobial and antibacterial properties improve digestion and help in the prevention of gastrointestinal disorders. Its antipyretic effect helps in reducing fevers. It also boosts immunity.
Lemon grass is rich in Vitamins A, B, C and folate. It also contains minerals like potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, manganese, copper, zinc, and iron. It also contains antioxidants and flavonoids.
12 ) Marjoram
Marjoram belongs to the mint family and are perennial herbs with woody stems and sweet pine and citrus flavours. The leaves are hairy and oval shaped. It is often confused with oregano, as both look similar, though are very different in flavour.
Mostly the leaves are used for culinary purposes in seasoning soups, stews, dressings and sauces. Its oil is used in cosmetic purposes.
It contains antioxidants, and has antiviral, anti fungal and anti bacterial properties. Marjoram can help in alleviating common digestive disorders like flatulence, constipation etc. It can help in reducing inflammations. It is mostly added towards the end of cooking. Dried marjoram has a stronger flavour than fresh ones.
13 ) Mint
Mint is an aromatic perennial herb having around 25 species of which the spearmint and peppermint are the most widely used. It is valued for its leaves which are used both fresh and dried in cooking.
The flowers are used in salads and as garnish. Mint essential oil is used in making toothpastes and beauty products. Catnip is also a variety of mint, to which cats are greatly attracted to.
The menthol in mint is a natural decongestant, and it also helps in relieving a sore throat. It aids digestion and gives relief to bloating and flatulence. It helps in alleviating allergy symptoms and helps to relieve nausea and headache.
Mint can be used to flavour salads, soups and smoothies. It is used in a variety of meat dishes. Owing to is cooling effect it is paired with yogurt drinks. In India we use mint to make a variety of chutneys and also to flavour biriyanis. Mint can easily be propagated using the stems or roots, but it is a highly invasive plant which can deter the growth of other plants in the garden. So it is best to grow mint in containers.
14 ) Oregano
Oregano is a flowering plant in the mint family native to the Mediterranean region. It is widely used in Italy, Greece and other regions of Mediterranean as well in the Middle East.
Its leaves are used for culinary purposes, while its oil is used in folk medicine. Its well known usage is in pizzas and pastas. It is also used in soups, salads and stews. Dry oregano is more flavourful than fresh ones.
Oregano is a rich source of antioxidants. Its used in herbal medicines to treat colds. Its is a known pain reliever. Oregano can help in alleviating menstrual cramps and relieve the negative effects of menopause. It is known for its anti bacterial properties and helps in killing intestinal parasites without causing side effects. An incredible source of potassium and a rich source of dietary fiber, it also helps in detoxifying the body
Indian borage or Mexican mint whose scientific name is Plectranthus amboinicus smells like oregano. It is hardy plant and grows easily and quickly. It can withstand hot as well as cold climates.
In India, it is used as a home remedy for curing colds and coughs. It also detoxifies the body, eases arthritis and optimises digestion. Known as Karpooravalli in Tamil, it has been long used in skin treatments of rashes and itchiness. It has high amounts of vitamin C and A ,which serve as an immune booster as well as prevent macular degeneration of the eyes.
15 ) Pandan
Pandan leaves scientifically called Pandanus amaryllifolius, are also known as screwpine and are widely used in Southeast Asian cuisine. It has a very sweet aroma, and is used extensively for flavouring sweet and savoury dishes.
It is also known by the epithet, “vanilla of the east“. The leaves which are fibrous and grass like are bruised, cut and added to curries to impart a delicate flavour. It is also ground with water, strained and used to flavour all kinds of dishes.
The kewra water that we get in India is nothing but the extract obtained from male flowers of the pandanus plant. This is also used to flavour a variety of dishes in northern India, though I haven’t come across that in South India. Pandan is known as Rampe in Srilanka, and the leaves are used to flavour lot of recipes there. The leaves are available here in Qatar, marked as Srilankan vegetable. You can get a few leaves for as cheap as 1 riyal at FFC.
Pandan leaves tea aid in relieving muscular pains, arthritis, headaches etc. It also helps in detoxing the liver. They can also be used to treat dandruff . Pandan leaves can treat sun burns and other skin infections. They also acts as an insect repellent to repel mosquitoes and cockroaches.
I came across this herb, during our trip to Malaysia and Singapore, when I happened to taste their famous street food Putu bambu and instantly fell in love with it. It is also known by the name Putu Klepon in Indonesia.
Putu is a very famous breakfast food in the South Indian state of Kerala. The South East Asians have given a wonderful transformation to our puttu using pandan leaf extract and palm sugar. The pandan flavour in that recipe was very delicately delicious. I have tried to recreate that recipe with our usual puttu flour , recipe coming up later.
16 ) Parsely
Parsely is a very refreshing herb, native to the Mediterranean , though its now found all over the world. There are two types of parsely – the flat parsely and the curly parsely in which the leaves are used and another variety of parsely- the root parsely, which is grown mainly for the roots that resemble parsnips.
Parsely is packed with anti oxidants and contains good amounts of vitamins A, C and K. It has flavanoids that help in cleansing and detoxing the body and is a good source of dietary fiber. Parsely helps in alleviating digestive disorders like flatulence, indigestion and constipation. It boosts immunity and also has anti bacterial and anti fungal properties and is a well known diuretic .
Middle Eastern recipes falafel and tabbouleh use good amounts of parsely. It is used as a garnish and also in salads and soups. It is normally added at the end of cooking to preserve flavour. Dried parsely can also be used in recipes in place of fresh parsely. It has most of the nutrients intact though the flavour is a bit muted compared to fresh parsely.
17 ) Rosemary
Rosemary is a perennial evergreen shrub native to the Mediterranean. It belongs to the flowering mint family lamiaceae. Rosemary is a woody herb and can withstand drought. It is used to flavour meat and fish and is also used in soups and stews.
Rosemary stimulates the immune system, increases circulation and improves digestion. From time immemorial it is known to strengthen memory and reducing age related memory loss. It increases blood flow to the brain, thereby increasing concentration. Rosemary is used topically for preventing and treating baldness. The oil extracted from the leaf is used in making medicine, beverages and also in the cosmetic industry.
18 ) Sage
Sage also known by the scientific name Salvia Officinalis is a Mediterranean herb, this is a member of the mint family or Lamiaceae. It is a hardy, evergreen shrub with leaves that are grey-green on the top and lighter on the underside.
Sage acts as a carminative, anti-perspirant, antibiotic and antiseptic. It has antioxidant properties. It is known to relieve digestive problems and regulate menstruation.
Sage tea when taken cold acts as a diuretic and when taken hot acts as an expectorant relieving colds and coughs. Sage contains vitamins C & B complex and has high levels of Calcium. It also contains Potassium, Magnesium and Zinc.
The powdered Sage added to toothpastes help in whitening teeth. It is believed to improve memory and bring prosperity to the household. In certain native cultures , it was used for purifying and cleansing , by burning the dried herb. It was believed to promote healing, wisdom, protection and longevity.
19 ) Tarragon
Tarragon , scientifically known as Artemisia dracunculus, belongs to the asteraceae or sunflower family . It is one of the most important herbs in French cooking and is one of the constituent of ‘Fines herbes‘. It has a flavour similar to anise.
The French tarragon and the Russian tarragon are the most widely used in cooking, though Russian tarragon is more coarser and weaker in flavour than French tarragon.
It aids digestion by naturally improving the digestive system and increases appetite. Eugenol , a naturally occurring anaesthetic in tarragon helps in treating toothaches. Tarragon helps to deal with suppressed menstruation and also helps in relieving menstrual pains. It has antibacterial properties and is a good source of Vitamins A, C, and B complex vitamins. It also contains minerals Potassium, Calcium, Magnesium , Iron, Zinc and Phosphorous. The herb is also believed to prevent platelet aggregation to the walls of the blood vessels, helps to improve brain and cognitive function.
It is used in cooking chicken, fish and egg dishes and is the chief constituent in bearnaise sauce . It is also used to flavour oils and vinegars. If you cannot get fresh tarragon, you can use dried ones as for this herb dried is as good as fresh in terms of flavour. But since dried herbs are more potent than fresh ones, for 1 tbsp of fresh you can substitute 1 tsp dried.
20 ) Thyme
Thyme or Thymus Vulgaris as it is scientifically known is an aromatic,woody, perennial herb belonging to the flowering mint family or Lamiaceae. There are more than 300 species of thyme. Though it is native to the Mediterranean, it is valued throughout the world for both culinary and medicinal uses.
The Garden thyme is the most common thyme, though caraway thyme, lemon thyme, cone head thyme and creeping thyme are also widely used.
Thyme is packed with vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients essential for good health. It has minerals Potassium, Iron, Calcium, Manganese, Magnesium and Selenium apart from vitamins A, B, C, E and K. The essential oil obtained from thyme contains thymol, which is a well known antibiotic and disinfectant, that enhances the immune system and fights infection.
It provides relief to the ailments of the digestive, respiratory and genitourinary systems. It can help in relieving migraine, flatulence and even expel worms. Thyme tea relieves menstrual pain and diarrhea. It is an effective remedy for sore throats and coughs.
Thyme is an important ingredient in bouquet garni and is used to flavour soups, stews and casseroles. It withstands long, slow cooking and enhances the flavour of other herbs without overpowering them. Thyme combines well with most vegetables as well as meat. It is an essential flavouring herb in middle eastern cuisine and is used to make Za’atar.
As you can see herbs are a very valuable source of vitamins and minerals that are very essential for the body. Most herbs contain the minerals like Potassium, Calcium, Magnesium, Manganese, Iron and Selenium and Vitamins A, B complex, C, E and K. So by just including herbs in our daily food we can ensure that we get a good dose of minerals and vitamins.
How do you go about it?
As much as possible try to add herbs in their live form, that is without cooking. This you can do by adding herbs to salads, or as garnishes. When cooking add them at towards the end of cooking so that most of the nutrients are preserved, though there are certain exceptions.
You can also make herb oils, herb vinegars or herb butters, by just chopping the herbs fine and adding them to oils, vinegars, or butters. The butter can be used as a spread, while the vinegars and oils after they are left to infuse for a few days can be used as flavourings. Or you can go the French way by making a bouquet garni – tying the herbs in a bunch and dropping in the pot while cooking stews, soups etc. You can also crush them with spices tie them in a muslin cloth and drop it into the pot while cooking.
In India, we make lots of chutneys using herbs like coriander, mint & curry leaves. Apart from that we use curry leaves in tempering while coriander leaves are used as a garnish for most gravies and variety rice.
Amount of herbs to be used?
Herbs unlike greens are used in lesser quantities. Almost all of them have medicinal properties and have to be used sparingly. Just because they are good for you, if you start consuming too much of them, you may have to experience a reverse effect. Moderation works the best. Especially , when you are working with essential oils, you need to exercise caution as they are very potent. If you are pregnant, nursing or have certain health conditions do not consume oils without consulting your doctor.
Where to purchase them?
The best way is to start by looking for and consuming the ones that are easily available to us in our locality. As much as possible, try to grow your own so that you can get the best out of it without any negatives like pesticides. You cannot try to grow all of the herbs mentioned above (another 15 coming up). Some of them do not thrive outside their native climates but some can definitely be grown at home. Herbs like coriander can grow from the seeds in our pantry, mint can be propagated through stems, and curry leaves can be grown from seeds or stems.
If you are short on space or lack interest to grow your own, you can definitely buy. Just ensure that you clean the herbs properly and thoroughly before use. You can use a soak of vinegar or baking soda, which seems to remove most of the potent pesticides.
People in Qatar can get seeds for basil, rosemary, thyme, sage, celery, parsely, dill and marjoram at Florenza nursery. All of these with the exception of rosemary and celery came up wonderfully. Am still trying out curly parsely. Oregano saplings are also seasonally available at Florenza. You can also get fresh herbs at almost all stores.
Fresh herbs do add a zing to your everyday dishes. They are so flavourful and make your food droolworthy. I use a combination of thyme and dill on egg omlettes. Now I understand why people in Russia are so obsessed with dill 🙂 . Basil goes well as garnish for South Indian fried rice, esp puliogare. The flavour of marjoram is so unique. I also make fresh herbal teas by letting the chopped herbs (either one or few of them together), steep in hot water. They are very refreshing and also add a whole lot of antioxidants to our body.
In places where you do not have access to fresh herbs you can use dried ones too. As dried herbs are more potent, use them in the ratio of 1 tsp for every tbsp of fresh herbs. They can also withstand long cooking compared to fresh ones. Dry herbs can be made into teas. I normally buy a pack of mixed dry herbs and use them in all Italian dishes, apart from eggs and meat.
If you want more details on any particular herb, please click on the links below.
Lots more coming up….
Check out my other glossaries