Mints in Ethnic Cuisines

Written by Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay of Roundtop, Texas

Reprinted from the International Herb Association -IHANEWS

Mints by Any Other Name
Arabic: na nal
French: mentha
Indian: podina
Mexico: yerba buena
Malaysian: daun pudina
Spanish: yerba buena or menta
Vietnamese: que, rauthoon, ha to, hung (different varieties)
German: Minze
Laotian: pak hom ho
Morocco: nana
Sri Lanka: Meenchhi
Thai: by kaprow
Greek: diosmo


Mints, and there are many, are popular all over the world. They have been a symbol of hospitality in far flung spots of the world. A welcome to a home in the Middle East is carried in the steaming cup of hot mint tea served to guests. A friend remembers from childhood that a bundle of mint hanging at a doorway in her East Texas home was a symbol of "welcome". In ancient Greece, mint leaves were crushed and rubbed on the table to show hospitality to visitors.

Mint is so universally esteemed that introduced varieties are now naturalized in many countries. Native mints were growing in America before the first settlers from Europe arrived, and brought their own varieties, too. We muse, if native Americans had offered steaming hot mint tea, and if the visitors had been receptive, could relations have been more hospitable with the Europeans? Peppermint was first recorded in 1696, when it was described by John Ray, an English botanist.

Mints are mentioned in early medieval plants lists, they were grown in early English gardens, and were likely brought to Britain in Roman Times. Apicius, in his famous cook book written in the first century, lists mints in many dishes. Charlemagne (742-814) decreed in 812 that many acresof mint, together with other herbs, be grown in his famous gardens of seventy-eight herbs.

As old as our botanical references are, we must go back into mythology for the beginning. The name genus name Mentha comes from "Minthe", a charming nymph in classic Greek mythology who was much adored by Pluto. This so angered Pluto's wife Prosperine, that she took her revenge by metamorphosing Minthes into the humble, downtrodden mint plant we now call Mentha. A sad ending for Minthe, but good news for we mere mortals.

In Greece, the home of the oldest Mediterranean cuisine, all this mint business and the study of foods began between 1700 - 1400 BC This was then an area dominated by the Minoans, who were a very sophisticated civilizations, the arts of cooking and dinning were considered important to their well-being. The techniques of cooking and even some of the basic sauces developed by the Minoans are still very much a part of the present day Greek kitchen, where they continue to use mint in great quantities in salads, soups, stews, and sauces.

Mints in the Kitchen

Spearmint flavoured mints are the preferred and most widely used types in food preparation around the world. When the generic word "mint" is used in a recipe it is generally conceded to be a spearmint. There are numerous varieties containing the spearmint flavoured oil. Some are smooth leaved, while others are woolly in texture. Some varieties have thick, fleshy leaves which may be very curly. there are pointed and round leaved spearmints. Some varieties have very dark stems and, in some cultures, a purple, black, or dark stemmed mint is considered to be the finest quality. Look for a spearmint variety with a taste that is sharp and clean tasting, much like Wrigley's spearmint gum. among those mints having good spearmint flavour, these are listed in most plant purveyor catalogs. Most are varieties, hybrids, or cultivars of Mentha spicata: Curly (Mentha spicata var. crispa), Curly Green M. x piperita 'Crispata', fuzzy Spearmint, Spearmint 'Kentucky Colonel', Large leaf spearmint, 'Scotch' spearmint (M, x gracilis). Another fine spearmint available from some sources is called Lebanese mint. This is supposedly the true Middle East spearmint and good. The cook should find, among this group, the mint that best pleases the nose and palate of the cook. You will find that the thicker or fleshier leaved varieties, as well as the woolly ones, tend to blacken more quickly after chopping. Handle all the mints in the kitchen as one does the basils. When using mint as a garnish or in cold dishes, chop or process just before serving. Quickly immerse the shopped leaves into or on the top of the food, whichever is appropriate. The heavy oils are volatilized or released quickly into the air when cut. Not only flavour is lost but the chopped leaves blacken when allowed to stand before use.

Peppermint is used sparingly in desserts, particularly those containing chocolate. The chocolate candy patty reminds us of its affinity for chocolate. By far, though, the preferred use for peppermint in the western world is for tea. There are many good varieties of peppermint but the benchmark of flavour should be a peppermint stick or candy cane. Other mint species and cultivars can be used in food preparation, but they do not have the sharp clean fragrance and flavour of spearmint and peppermint. They are lovely when used as food garnishes and when grown in the garden. Pineapple mint is a perfect garnish for a chocolate dessert. Note: In the interest of simplicity, when we use the term "mint" in recipes, we are referring to spearmint in all instances.

The Mediterranean Basin

Tzatzikia, Tallatori in the Greek kitchen or Cacik in Turkish cuisine is a simple yet delicious dish to prepare. Yogurt is combined with diced cucumbers, lots of mint, dill, and garlic. Tossed with olive oil and vinegar, moderated with a little salad, and topped with English walnuts, this classis is a fine salad to accompany meats, fish, soups, or vegetables. One of out favourite accompaniments with Tzatzikia, when served as an appetizer, if fried zucchini or eggplant strips. Good in any language!

Keftedes (meatballs) is a classic dish prepared with mint and cinnamon. The Greeks were grilling steaks topped with mint jelly a few centuries before Texans discovered jalapeno jelly was good on beef and ham! Moussaka is an eggplant casserole, redolent with the aroma of cheeses and mint in a savory sauce. Creamy pastitchio (baked macaroni with meat sauce) is heavenly with cheeses, mint, and cinnamon. Greeks love the legumes, and bean soups, salads, or savory stews abound. One popular dish is a long simmered, oven baked stew made with large lima beans called gigantes or fava beans, tomatoes, onions, and herbs, including mint and oregano. Dolmas or stuffed grapes leaves are not authentic without chopped mint added to the stuffing. Hortopitta, a spinach (or other vegetables) and rice pie, owes it flavour to parsley, mint, dill, and cinnamon. What a treat! It is said that mint is to Greeks with basil is to the Italians. It is used with abandon in all dishes. In Cyprus, cheese and mint are used to make Flauones Kyprioukes (mint flavoured cheese tarts).

Middle East

In the Middle East, mint is added to yogurt for the Kubbah or Kibbee (grilled meatball in sauces). Summer would not be the same if deprived of the classic Tabooli or Tabooleh. Generous amounts of mint and parsley are added to the soaked cracked wheat called bulghur. When combined with thinly sliced green onions, fresh lemon juice, and olive oil it is a dish fit for the sheik in your family. The addition of cucumbers and tomatoes is not merely gilding the lily, but adds a great flavour. We serve Tabooleh warm as a side accompaniment to red meats and poultry. In the summertime a tasty combination of yogurt, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, and chopped mint is drizzled over fried or grilled eggplant which has been cubed or sliced. This makes a wonderful salad served at room temperature are a fine addition to grilled or roasted meats. In Jordan, another popular summer dish is prepared with diced cucumber and tomato. Parsley and spearmint, together with a little garlic, are chopped with fresh lemon juice and olive oil. A modicum of hot pepper is added and tossed lightly. We would recognize this as a Middle Eastern "salad."

The Pharisees paid their tithes in mint (Mentha longifolia 'Habak'), anise, and cumin according to Biblical record. In Babylon, min was added to a turnip stew, according to one of the oldest recipes known and written on a stone tablet. The ancient Hebrews scattered mint leaves on the synagogue floor, so that each footstep would produce a fresh, fragrant aroma.

In Morocco, and throughout the Middle East and in Ethiopia, mint is the basis of the sweet mint tea that is traditionally served after meals. In South Africa, mint flavours a classic Green Pea soup. Mint is found in a popular Middle East cheese, Haloumi; which is a whole milk cheese that melts into longs strands, similar to mozzarella but cured in brine like feta.

Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay of Roundtop, Texas, are veteran herb growers and cooks. They are well known for their classic book Southern Herb Growing (Fredericksburg, Texas: Shearer Publishing, 1987)

Indian, Southeast Asia and Pacific Rim

In Indian cuisine, grains and legumes are basic foods and mint is an important seasoning. These traditionally bland foods are the basis of wonderful, highly seasoned, and sometimes very hot curries or vindaloos, depending on the area of India. Both are served with chopped fresh mint, basil, coriander, and fenugreek leaves splatted over the top of the food just before serving. The wonderful aroma of herbs and spices proves again that we do taste most of our food though the nose.

Curries and vegetables prepared with spices and herbs are traditionally served with chutney. The chutney known to American tastes are more like European chutney: a combination of fruits, vegetables, sugar, vinegar, and spices. These are very good, but the true Indian chutney are simple combinations of chopped fresh herbs such as mint, coriander, hot peppers, coconut, onion, vinegar or lemon juice, and sugar. These chutney are uncooked and are always served cold or at room temperature. Again, we see the similarity of these flavourful combinations to the incredibly popular "salsa." Every cuisine has a similar salsa or sauce using the vegetables of the season with fresh herbs, usually coriander, mint, parsley, and dill. They are delightful with meats, fish, and poultry as well as vegetables and curries. Perhaps this is how the English mint sauce evolved, since that is made with mint, sugar, vinegar, and water. Raitas are a combination of yogurt, cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions with mint, parsley, mustard seed, and cumin. They function as a salad and cool moderator of the sometimes very hot peppery dishes.

Nowhere is mint more widely used than in the cuisines of Southeast Asia. As a flavouring, mints finds its way into curries, sambals, raw chutney, dipping sauces and jellies. Mint is chopped and used as a garnish for many spicy dishes.

Several varieties of mint are used in the preparation of the complex foods of this area, but they are always of a spearmint flavour. One of the most popular mints in Southeast Asian cuisine is out beloved red stem applemint. This mint came to us in the mind or late 1960s, brought as a gift. Because the plant was stressed and had very red stems and a fruity fragrance, we dubbed it "red stemmed applemint" to identify it for propagation. It quickly became our favourite mint in the kitchen but we did not then know its true identity. in 1980, Dr. Arthur Tucker identified this mint as Mentha x gracilis Sole. According to Dr. Tucker this unusual hybrid complex contains both spearmint and peppermint oils. It has now been given a proper name: Double Mint (Mentha x gracilis cv. 'Madalene Hill'). I am very honoured to have this most popular Southeast Asian mint carry my name.

Double mint is the mint of choice, when available, in Vietnamese cuisine, finding its way into spring rolls and included on the "vegetable plate", a standard accompaniment to all Vietnamese meals. A plate or platter is piled high with lettuce, sprigs of coriander, basil, and mint. In addition, slices of fresh pineapple, spiced carrots, and cucumber are often included. The vegetables are torn up into the broth based soups or wrapped with the meats in lettuce leaves. One then immerses these choices tidbits into Nuoc mam, the typical dipping sauce of Vietnam, made with garlic, hot chiles, lime juice or rice wine vinegar, sugar, water, and a fish sauce called Nuoc Cham or mam. This is a culinary delight and fat-free to boot!

Thai food is similar to Vietnamese cuisine, and uses mint together with other fresh herbs. The Thai add more hot, hot chiles to all their dishes. Yam Nang Mu, their famous pork skin salad, calls for lots of mint. The Pacific rim is a melting pot of many cultures. Those using diary products will replicate the same yogurt, cucumber, and mint combination with the addition of hot chiles as a classic cool accompaniment for many Pacific Rim dishes.

Western World and Mexico

In Mexico, mint is the secret ingredient in Albondigas (meatball soup). Mint is called Yerba buena (meaning good herb) and is combined with chamomile for a tisane enjoyed after a heavy meal. In our own South, spearmint characterizes the famous mint julep of Kentucky on Derby Day. In out kitchen we add mint to peas, carrots, new potatoes, casseroles, and meats - particularly beef and lamb. A minted salad dressing has long been a favourite with guests for both green and fruit salads.

Mint 101

Probably no herb used in the kitchen has the capacity to make you a connoisseur of so many of the world's finest cuisines as the simple addition of a good spearmint. Think Greek for the party and make the cheese spread. Cold, rainy weather makes on hungry for soup. Try the wonderful Southeast Asian version. it freezes well too. Chop the mint, basil, and coriander and top the curry to take your guests to India. Summer entertaining is so easy and popular with a colourful bowl of Tabooleh. Then give the kids a geography lesson with Mexican meatball soup. Have a short Spanish lesson and tech them how to say "Al-bone-digas". They may be near the border someday or in Mexico and need that word to have a fine, typical lunch. Come close to home and treat yourself to a fine salad of lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, and sweet onions bathed in minted salad dressing. This salad dressing is great also on fruit salad, in a cabbage slaw, and as a marinade for cold cooked vegetables. It keeps for several weeks in the fridge if you hide it. You will always be a chef of the world when mint is added. Bon Appetit! 1998 HERB OF THE YEAR.

Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay of Roundtop, Texas, are veteran herb growers and cooks. They are well known for their classic book Southern Herb Growing (Fredericksburg, TX: Shearer Publishing, 1987)


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