More than 50 years ago, Irma Goodrich Mazza wrote a book called "Herbs for the Kitchen" that quickly became a classic. Published in 1939 and revised in 1947, it has been reprinted many times.
In the '30s, Americans had to be told that fresh herbs, garlic and premium olive oils could do wonderful things for food. They hardly knew such seasonings existed. The Boston Herald, reviewing the first edition of Mazza's book, called her cooking "unusual." Like most women, Mazza turned out her share of bland creamed vegetables. Then she married an Italian who refused to eat such stuff.
Mazza warned her readers not to let their families know they were going to spike food with strange little green leaves. "Automatically they will be set against the entire venture and you will be licked before you start," she warned.
If someone asked what made a dish tasty, the game plan was to play coy. "Just get a mysterious gleam in your eye," advised Mazza and say, "Oh, just a little marjoram. . . . I'll try to remember to put some in again the next time we have this dish."
Today, there's an astonishing abundance of herbs in American markets and nurseries, more than Mazza ever dreamed of, and no one is shy about using them. Mazza thought cooks could do wonders with only six--basil, marjoram, mint, rosemary, sage and thyme--but proposed 25 more for serious cooks and another 26 for those who became hooked.
That's a lot of herbs but doesn't begin to touch those that have arrived with recent waves of immigrants. At the moment, most of these are available only in specialty markets, some farmers markets and the back yards of new residents who want to recreate the tastes of home.
Many have no English names, like the Vietnamese rau ram , a pointy, strong-tasting leaf that turns up in Singaporean cuisine under the name daun kesom . It's also called laksa leaf, because it always tops the noodle soup known as laksa.
Other new seasonings are not herbs but aromatics--ingredients that add flavor but are not eaten. These include lemon grass, which is working its way into mainstream cooking; fresh pandanus leaves; galangal and kaffir lime leaves.
The same herb may be used in several countries under different names, which creates a lot of confusion. Japanese shiso , which has been available here for awhile, is thi to to the Vietnamese, which at least is vaguely similar. It also goes by perilla and "beefsteak leaf." Red-stemmed basil is rau que to a Vietnamese and horapha to a Thai. Galangal, which looks like pale-skinned ginger root, is kha in Thailand, lengkuas in Malaysia and laos in Indonesia.
The Mexican herb epazote once was unavailable here, except as an occasionally found wild plant. Now Taylor's Herb Gardens of Vista supplies it to nurseries. Once started, epazote spreads like mint, sprouting up in every pot within its ambitious reach. And so, by the way, does rau ram , which can be sprouted from a cut bunch purchased at an Asian market. Place the bunch in water until roots form, then plant it. Or buy this and other potted Vietnamese herbs from markets in Westminster's Little Saigon.
Long slim pandanus leaves occasionally appear fresh but are almost always available frozen. Juice squeezed from the leaves gives a subtle flavor to some southeast Asian desserts, and cooks in Singapore and Malaysia often add a blade when cooking rice. Until recently, bottled pandan flavoring was the only way to obtain this unique flavor.
South Indian curry leaves taste nothing like curry powder, though they're often added to curries, so that's probably how they acquired the name. Indian cookbooks sometimes specify bay leaves as an alternative, but the flavors have nothing in common. Dried curry leaves have long been available in Indian markets. Now the leaves are arriving fresh. They'll keep for a long time in the refrigerator, or can be dried for later use.
Galangal looks like ginger root but smells vaguely of mustard. It's available fresh in some Thai markets. La lot leaves, in which Vietnamese wrap beef as part of their seven-course beef dinner, grow well in Southern California. We don't usually think of something that you wrap meat with as an herb, but they do contribute to the flavor of the dish.
Some say that when grown on American soil, Asian herbs and aromatics lose their full flavor. On the other hand, the executive chef of a hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia, told me that European herbs grow quickly in Indonesia's hot, humid climate. But they have so little taste that it is necessary to rely on imported herbs from Europe.
Rau ram has a strong, soapy flavor, but without it, this soupy noodle dish from Singapore would lose its unique taste. The recipe is from "Singapore Food" by Wendy Hutton (Ure Smith). Buy the fish balls and fresh rice noodles at a Chinese market. The noodles should be the size of thick spaghetti.