Herbs are aromatic plants that are generally used for garnishing and flavoring. 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 flavor 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 parsley, thyme, basil, sage, marjoram, dill, rosemary (all of which I grew in my garden), 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 flavor. They are available at the 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 in phenolic compounds and polyphenols. It is rich in antioxidants. It helps in reducing inflammation, has anti-aging and anti-bacterial properties.
Thus apart from providing flavor, it has immense health benefits. Basil is normally added at the end of cooking, as cooking quickly destroys the flavor.
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 flavor 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 flavor that 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 starflower, 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 oilseed 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, roots, 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 flavonoids and antioxidants.
The stalks are used as a vegetable. It is the staple in many soups. The leaves are strongly flavored and are used to add mild spicy flavor 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 its 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 parsley. It is used particularly in France to season poultry, seafood, soups, and sauces.
Chervil is one of the constituents of fines herbes, along with tarragon, chives, and parsley which are essential in French cooking. It is also added to the food at the end to preserve its flavor.
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 an herb, though the flowers are also used in salads or blossom vinegar. 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 flavor.
7 ) Cilantro
Cilantro or Coriander leaves as we call it in India, is also called Chinese Parsley. It is the main herb used in India. Apart from garnishing, we make varieties of chutneys out of it.
It is the main flavoring ingredient in lots of dishes, like biriyani. Though the whole plant is edible, the leaves and seeds are preferred.
Coriander 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 vomiting. It helps to prevent macular degeneration or cataract of the eyes.
Coriander seeds when powdered form the main spice of Indian dishes. In South India, a tea made of coriander 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 flavor that emanates when tempering is done using curry leaves is irresistible. 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 flavor. It is the 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 other phytonutrients such as fiber, niacin, phosphorus, copper, riboflavin, vitamin B6, magnesium, and potassium.
It has compounds that not only fought bacteria but also cancer. So it’s 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 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 ) Lemongrass
Lemongrass is a herb that belongs to the grass family and has a citrus flavor. It is mainly used in South East Asian Cuisine.
The stems and the leaf buds are used in cooking. It goes well with seafood 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.
Lemongrass 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.
Lemongrass 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 is a perennial herb with a woody stem and sweet pine and citrus flavors. The leaves are hairy and oval-shaped.
It is often confused with oregano, as both look similar, though are very different in flavor.
Mostly the leaves are used for culinary purposes in seasoning soups, stews, dressings, and sauces. Its oil is used for 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 flavor 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 a garnish. Mint essential oil is used in making toothpaste 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 flavor salads, soups, and smoothies. It is used in a variety of meat dishes. Owing to its cooling effect it is paired with yogurt drinks.
In India, we use mint to make a variety of chutneys and also to flavor biriyanis.
Mint can easily be propagated using the stems or roots, but it is a highly invasive plant that 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 the Mediterranean as well as 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 pasta.
It is also used in soups, salads, and stews. Dry oregano is more flavorful than fresh ones.
Oregano is a rich source of antioxidants. It’s used in herbal medicines to treat colds. It 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 a 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 optimizes 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 flavoring sweet and savory 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 flavor.
It is also ground with water, strained, and used to flavor 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 flavor 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 flavor a 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. It can also be used to treat dandruff. Pandan leaves can treat sunburns and other skin infections. Pandan 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 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 flavor in that recipe was very delicately delicious. I have tried to recreate that recipe with our usual puttu flour, recipe coming up later.
16 ) Parsley
Parsley is a very refreshing herb, native to the Mediterranean, though it is now found all over the world.
There are two types of parsley – the flat parsley and the curly parsley in which the leaves are used and another variety of parsley- the root parsley, which is grown mainly for the roots that resemble parsnips.
Parsley is packed with antioxidants and contains good amounts of vitamins A, C, and K. It has flavonoids that help in cleansing and detoxing the body and is a good source of dietary fiber.
Parsley 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.
Dried parsley can also be used in recipes in place of fresh parsley. It has most of the nutrients intact though the flavor is a bit muted compared to fresh parsley.
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 flavor 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 is 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, antiperspirant, 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 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 toothpaste helps 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 constituents 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 the Russian tarragon is coarser and weaker in flavor than the French tarragon.
It aids digestion by naturally improving the digestive system and increases appetite. Eugenol, a naturally occurring anesthetic 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 of bearnaise sauce. It is also used to flavor oils and vinegar.
If you cannot get fresh tarragon, you can use dried ones as for this herb dried is as good as fresh in terms of flavor. 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, conehead 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 diarrhoea. It is an effective remedy for sore throats and coughs.
Thyme is an important ingredient in bouquet garni and is used to flavor soups, stews, and casseroles. It withstands long, slow cooking and enhances the flavor of other herbs without overpowering them.
Thyme combines well with most vegetables as well as meat. It is an essential flavoring 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 vinegar, or herb butter, by just chopping the herbs finely and adding them to oils, vinegar, or butter.
The butter can be used as a spread, while the vinegar and oils after they are left to infuse for a few days can be used as flavorings.
Or you can go the French way by making a bouquet garni – tying the herbs in a bunch and dropping them in the pot while cooking stews, soups, etc. You can also crush them with spices tie them in a muslin cloth and drop them 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, parsley, dill, and marjoram at Florenza nursery. All of these with the exception of rosemary and celery came up wonderfully. Am still trying out curly parsley.
Oregano saplings are also seasonally available at Florenza, while rosemary, thyme, basil saplings are available at the cash counters of most malls. You can also get fresh herbs at almost all stores.
Fresh herbs do add a zing to your everyday dishes. They are so flavorful and make your food drool-worthy. I use a combination of thyme and dill on egg omelets. Now I understand why people in Russia are so obsessed with dill 🙂 .
Basil goes well as a garnish for South Indian fried rice, esp puliogare. The flavor of marjoram is so unique. I also make fresh herbal teas by letting the chopped herbs (either one or a 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