Growing and cooking with fresh herbs have become a big thing that contnues to grow more popular over the years.

By Tony A. Rodriguez

The continuous fusion of Western and Asian culinary arts and innovations have made the use of herbs popular in Filipino cooking, which now features a vibrant assortment of herbs and spices from all over the world. Many of our most popular dishes have come to blend our own tropical ingredients with flavors from Europe and the Americas, China, Thailand, and the Middle East, to cater to our changing food preferences.

Herbs are leaves and sometimes stems of a group of aromatic, non-woody plants used in cooking and also for medicinal purposes. Fresh herbs enhance the flavor of soups, salads, and main dishes without the ill effects on the body of the excessive use of salt, soy sauce, patis (fish sauce) or bagoong (fermented shrimp). Food simply tastes better with herbs, especially when the herbs used are fresh.

Individual or mixed herbs impart an aromatic quality to food. The flavor comes from the oil stored in the leaves, which is released when the herb is crushed, chopped, or heated. Particular herbs suit different styles of cooking, and every cuisine has its favorites. Those of the Middle East favor oregano, mint, and dill while Thai cuisine uses much coriander and lemon grass. Italian cuisine favors basil, parsley, and oregano, and the French prefer tarragon, chervil, and fennel.

Another reason for the high demand for culinary herbs is because cooks no longer just add simple spices like garlic, onions, tomatoes, and ginger for taste. Herbs have become an essential ingredient for enhancing, complementing, and even defining the flavors of a dish. The judicious use of herbs chopped finely or boiled and used in the broth for specific food preparations elevates cooking to a new level.

Herbs have high concentrations of antioxidants, which have been established to have properties that help in preventing degenerative diseases, including cancers, cardio-vascular diseases, and even diabetes.

The most common herbs in the market are basil, chives, coriander, lemon balm, mint, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, tarragon, and thyme. One can also find dill, chervil, fennel, and lavender.

Basil

Sweet or
Mediterranean basil

The “king of herbs” is one of the most recognized, loved, and even revered herbs, considered holy in many cultures around the world. It features prominently in Italian cuisine; the fresh leaves, whole or torn, are used in a Caprese salad, on pizza, and in homemade pesto. A sauce of fresh basil leaves ground with garlic, pine nuts, and olive oil can be spread over hot pasta just before serving. Basil also plays a major role in the cuisines of Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Taiwan in Southeast Asia.

A leafy, bushy fragrant annual, basil is native to the tropical regions of Asia and grows best in warm climates. Fully grown plants reach a meter in height. Leaves vary from light green to purple, and are smooth and silky. The leaves have a spicy taste similar to licorice. Basil should not be chopped but torn and added to hot food at the last moment to preserve its flavor.

The most common variety of basil is the sweet or Mediterranean, of which Genovese basil is a cultivar. Other varieties include the less sweet purple basil, lemon basil, and Thai basil, with its licorice flavor. Mediterranean or sweet basil is mild and has a sweet anise-clove flavor. It’s recognized as the culinary basil as it’s used extensively in various cuisines worldwide.

Basil is full of notable health-benefiting phytonutrients. Its leaves hold many chemical compounds known to have disease-preventing and health-promoting properties. The herb is very low in calories, contains no cholesterol, and is one of the finest sources of many essential nutrients, minerals, and vitamins required for optimum health.

Chevril

Chervil, or French parsley, is a delicate annual herb related to parsley. It’s commonly used to season mild-flavored dishes and is one of the four traditional French herb mixture fines herbes along with tarragon, chives, and parsley, which are essential to French cooking.

It is used for seasoning poultry, seafood, young spring vegetables (such as carrots), soups, and sauces. More delicate than parsley, it has a faint taste of licorice or aniseed. Unlike the more pungent, robust herbs, which can take prolonged cooking, the fines herbes require adding at the last minute to salads, omelets, and soups.

Chives

Widely used in Chinese and Korean cuisines, chives’ gentle onion flavor is perfect for dishes that need that layer of taste. The thin, tubular, and bright green chives are a member of the onion family and have a sweet, mild oniony flavor. Snip them with scissors to enhance scrambled eggs, omelets, baked potatoes, and fish dishes. Stronger-flavored foods will overpower chives and make them unnoticeable.

Coriander

Coriander, also known as cilantro, wansoy, or Chinese parsley, has a distinctive peppery flavor and is used liberally in Mexican, Middle Eastern, and Asian cooking. Discard all but the most tender stems and tear them along with the leaves, or use them whole as a raw garnish near the end of cooking. Cilantro shines in fish tacos, Thai curries, chow mein, and meat dishes.

The leaves, stem, and root can all be used in cooking. The roots give a strong coriander flavor and the leaves are usually added at the end of the cooking, both as a flavoring and a garnish. Fresh coriander leaves are an ingredient in many Indian, Chinese, Thai, and Mexican cooking, and in salads in Russia and other countries. As heat diminishes their flavor, the leaves are often used raw or added to dishes immediately before serving.

Dill

An annual herb in the celery family Apiaceae, dill has wide uses in Europe and central Asia. Its fernlike leaves are aromatic and flavor many fish dishes such as cured salmon, and borscht and other soups. The sharp-flavored leaves pair well with sour cream, cucumber, salads, and smoked fish, and make a good garnish for vegetables. Use it in homemade dips and in quick pickles. Dill gives dill pickles their name as the cucumbers are preserved with dill flowers in salty brine and/or vinegar.

Fennel

A flowering plant species in the carrot family, fennel is a hardy, perennial, umbelliferous (plants with flowers in umbels or clusters) herb with feathery leaves and yellow flowers. Highly aromatic and flavorful, it’s one of the primary ingredients of absinthe, a high-alcohol drink made from culinary and medicinal herbs which was popular in late 19th and early 20th-century France. Fennel’s inflated leaf base, also known as a bulb, is eaten raw or cooked as vegetable.

Many cuisines throughout the world widely use the bulb, leaves, and seeds of the fennel plant. Similar in shape to those of dill, fennel leaves are delicately flavored, with young tender leaves used for garnishes, as a salad, to add flavor to salads, to flavor sauces, and also in soups and fish sauce. A herbal tea can be made from fennel.

Lavender

This herb lends a slightly sweet flavor to most dishes and is sometimes paired with goat’s milk cheese. Most recipes use its dried buds or flowers. Due to their calming scent, lavender leaves can be used for herbal infusions.

Lemon Balm

Lemon balm

This herb that’s a member of the mint family is a prolific plant with beautiful green leaves. Try it
in a pesto for your fish, and as a substitute for cilantro in ceviche, an appetizer consisting of small
pieces of raw fish in a lime or lemon juice marinade commonly made with onions, peppers, and spices. This versatile herb’s fresh leaves can be used for salads or to make a good, calming tea.

Mint

Mint is a zesty addition to salads. Its fresh leaves can be added to a herbal infusion for a refreshing beverage. It grows well in sunny or shady gardens, vegetates quickly, and loves to be trimmed back often.

Traditionally used in British cooking to go with lamb as mint sauce and on potatoes, mint also goes well with salads and steamed fish. There are several types, including apple mint, peppermint, and spearmint.

Oregano

Oregano

An herb with a robust scent and flavor, oregano is a good complement to Italian or Greek dishes, meat, fish, eggs, cheese, tomatoes, and vegetables. Aromatic and with a slight citrus taste, oregano is common in Mediterranean cuisine, found in items ranging from salad dressings and marinades to kebabs and roast lamb.

A light sprinkling of oregano before dressing a green salad is a tasty enhancement. Oregano does not hold up well to prolonged cooking when used fresh, so add fresh leaves at the end of the cooking process or use dried leaves for sauces or anything that requires prolonged simmering.

Parsley

Parsley or garden parsley is a species in the family Apiaceae native to the central Mediterranean region and naturalized in Europe and elsewhere, where it’s now widely cultivated as a herb, a spice, and a vegetable. Available as flat-leaf or curly leaf parsley, this herb has wide uses in the cuisines of the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas.

Curly leaf parsley is often just a garnish. Flatleaf parsley tends to be stronger in flavor but the two can be used interchangeably. Central and eastern European and western Asian dishes have fresh green chopped parsley sprinkled on top. Root parsley is common in central and eastern European cuisines, where it’s a snack or a vegetable in soups, stews, and casseroles.

Rosemary

Rosemary is an evergreen shrub with needle-like leaves and a lemony-pine nut flavor that goes well with fish and poultry as well as eggs and some vegetable dishes. A strong flavored herb, it needs to be used judiciously and chopped very finely. As flavoring, use the sprigs and remove before serving.

The leaves are for flavoring various foods, such as stuffings and roast meats. Fresh or dried leaves are used in traditional Italian cuisine. They have a bitter, astringent taste and a characteristic aroma which complements many cooked foods. Herbal tea can be made from the leaves. When roasted with meats or vegetables, the leaves impart a mustard-like aroma and contain a number of phytochemicals and antioxidants.

Sage

Sage is a small perennial evergreen with grayish leaves and blue-to-purplish flowers. Its slight peppery flavor is good for fatty meats in Western cooking. Italian, Balkan, and Middle Eastern cuisines also use it. It is rewarding to grow and is a spectacular and tasty herb. Sage leaves are traditionally used with onion to stuff goose and in Italian cuisine to flavor butter served with pasta, as well as in pork veal and liver dishes. The whole leaves can be deep-fried and used as garnish. Use sparingly as the flavor can be too strong.

Sage can enhance the flavor of sausages, liver, pork, poultry, oily fish, cheese dishes and can be used in spreads and sauces. Its strong piney, peppery flavor is best limited to certain applications. British pork sausages and sage and onion stuffing for poultry would not be the same without it. It’s also essential in some Italian dishes.

Tarragon

Tarragon is a species of perennial herb in the sunflower family. It has an anise-like flavor that goes well with cheese, chicken, egg, fish, and vegetable dishes. It has a hint of aniseed to its flavor and many classic French dishes use it. It makes good aromatic sauces for poultry. The variety known as “French tarragon” is best for culinary use and is one of the four fines herbes of French cooking. Fresh, lightly bruised sprigs of tarragon steeped in vinegar produce tarragon vinegar, which in turn makes a good salad dressing.

Thyme

This short evergreen shrub is often overlooked as a culinary herb. There are many varieties, all with small leaves, that can be used to flavor casseroles and soups. Thyme gives a rich aromatic flavor to slow-cooked food and roasts, and an unmatched flavor to meat dishes. Thyme goes well with vegetable recipes calling for garlic, onion, tomatoes, and eggplants, which are staples in Filipino cooking.

Local Herb Sources

A worker at Gourmet Farms, Inc. in Silang, Cavite harvests sweet basil tops.

Buy cut fresh herbs or grow them in pots or in the garden. Adela Ang’s Herbs Center and the Agri-Aqua Network International Garden Center, both at the Quezon Memorial Circle in Quezon City, sell potted seedlings, as does Gourmet Farms Inc. (GFI) in Silang, Cavite. GFI, Melendress Farms in Antipolo City in Rizal, a concessionaire of the country’s leading high-end supermarket chain, and Costales Nature Farms in Majayjay, Laguna supply ready-to-use culinary herbs to their institutional customers.

Herb farms that used to proliferate only in Benguet Province half a decade ago can now be found in Tagaytay City, Bacolod, Cebu, Cagayan de Oro, Davao, and other major cities. Most if not all of these farms use protected cultivation structures like greenhouses. They produce herbs mostly through organic farming, a factor that adds to the growing demand for them as people become more and more health-conscious.

In growing your own herbs, plant in well-drained soil. Amend clayey soil with materials like carbonized rice hull, coco coir, vermicompost, etc. Control watering so the plants neither dry out nor become over-watered. Plants should get at least half a day of direct sunlight as herbs usually need a lot of sun. Don’t over-cut the leaves so the plants don’t grow stunted and produce smaller leaves. Cut out dead parts of the plants to encourage new growth, especially with mint.

Don’t use chemical fertilizers or similar concoctions. The herbs’ essential oil content will be less concentrated and thus, the leaves will be less flavorful. Go organic and natural.

Cooking with Herbs

Chop herbs with scissors or a flat knife; you can also shred bunches of coarse ones like parsley in your blender. Fine herbs such as tarragon or chives can be left large, shredded, or snipped. Basil should be torn. Basil, coriander and sage will discolor if chopped too early.

Mint or basil leaves which are to be steeped in water to make tea should first be gently crushed in your hand to release their aromatic oils.

In storing herbs, buy those that are in plastic boxes or cellophane bags for better keeping. Place loose herbs in plastic bags and store these in the refrigerator’s vegetable crisper. Herbs with more robust leaves will keep longer than those with fragile ones. Big bunches of mint, parsley, and coriander will keep well in a jug of water for a few days.

Allied Botanical Corporation is a major supplier of herb seeds, and these are available in 1.0- to 10- gram packets each, except for rosemary, which comes in packets of 0.3 grams, and mint, in
packets of 2,000 seeds.

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s September 2015 issue.