Deccan Herald, Friday, October 15, 2004



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Deccan Herald » Living » Full Story

The green magic of herbs

Whether you’re cooking Italian or Thai, herbs add that special pep and sizzle to set your taste buds tickling, says RASHMI GOPAL RAO.

Can you imagine the mouth watering spicy hot Peppernotta without the characteristic aroma of herbs? Very hard I guess. In fact it’s almost impossible to imagine Italian cuisine without its famous herbs and spices. Here’s a brief on the most popular herbs most commonly used in Italian cooking.

Thyme: a herb of Mediterranean origin it comes from the mint family. Its sub varieties include the narrow-leafed French thyme and broad-leafed English thyme. In ancient Greece it was considered a symbol of style, elegance and courage.

It was later brought to North America and was used both as a food preservative and medicine given its antiseptic qualities. Easily one of the best cooking herbs it has a distinct vibrant flavour and is said to aid digestion. It is frequently used dried but used in its fresh form it not only adds flavour but also forms an excellent garnishing option. This herbs’ strong and pungent flavour is most commonly used to add pep to soups, pizza, breads and rolls. But be cautious not to add excess as even a teaspoon is more than enough to get your taste buds tickling.

Basil: a popular herb that is most commonly associated with both Italian and Thai cuisine, basil is considered to be the most royal of all herbs. An interesting yet relatively unknown fact is that basil originated in India. Rich with medicinal properties the Hindi name for basil is Tulsi meaning sacred basil. It was later brought to the Mediterranean via the spice routes in ancient times. As it spread to Asia it was largely used in Thailand to add flavour to most Thai curries.

Given the fact that there are over 12 varieties of basil, it’s extremely aromatic flavour is widely used to enhance the taste of fruits, vegetables, grains, salads and pastas. Its unique flavour also compliments cheese very well. Try it in a salad or in a sandwich with tomatoes. Add whole leaves if you can withstand the strong flavour. However use extra caution while using a knife on basil leaves as bruising the leaves can take the flavour out.

Rosemary: Botanically known as Rosmarinus officinalis this herb has been always associated with remembrance and is still used to signify friendship or love. Strong and aromatic this herb grows extensively in the Mediterranean coast but other major producers include France, Spain and Portugal. It was used in the ancient times to ward off evil spirits and drive away illnesses.

Belonging to the mint family it has a flavour and aroma similar to pine. The stimulating taste of rosemary lends itself easily to breads, soups, marinades and potatoes. While it compliments other herbs well, it does have the tendency to dominate, which is why it is used largely in its dried form. However those who quite like its peppy and pungent taste can obtain its refreshing flavour by simply adding a dash of the fresh herb in lemonade. Oregano: yet another popular herb this derives its name from two Greek words meaning “the joy of the mountain.” It is also a member of the mint family that has been used for flavouring since ancient times. There are principally two varieties of this herb; Greek oregano and Mexican oregano.

While the latter is obviously grown in Mexico, the main suppliers of the former are Turkey and Greece. Mexican oregano has an earthier flavour.

Called the “pizza herb” oregano goes well with all types of tomato sauces and cheese dishes. Teamed with basil it is used to create the special flavour characteristic of Italian cooking.

So next time you delve into those pastas and gratins you know that much more about those wonderful ingredients that make the dishes as delicious as they can get!

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