CUISINE: THE MAGIC OF HERBS

February 04, 2018

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As always Aunt Fahmi had nailed it — she had made the best lasagne and palak paneer for our lunch party. The herbs, mainly oregano, that she had delicately sprinkled on the lasagne topping as well as flavoured the tomato sauce with, cracked a slightly pungent flavour, balancing the nutmeg, salt, pepper, bay leaves and spinach. Aunt’s special recipe for the traditional palak paneer with fenugreek leaves (kasuri methi) gave the dish a tinge of bitterness and added a distinctive aroma. It was an experience for the tastebuds to pick up the fusion of different herbs in every dish, each rendering its unique flavour.

Aunt Fahmi knows how to use herbs in her dishes. She loves experimenting with Asian and Western recipes. A day spent with her opened a whole new world of spices, herbs and curry-bases for me. “I use different herbs for seasoning main courses and salads,” she told me. “Lately, a lot of people have started to experiment with a variety of primeval, ayurvedic herbs, because apart from yielding great taste, these herbs have numerous health and medicinal benefits. For example, we have been using coriander and mint leaves in salads all our lives, but do you know that parsley, chives (payazi) and basil leaves can also be used to season and garnish salads? They are more flavoursome, nutritious, aromatic and add colour to appetisers.”

Determined to pass on all the knowledge she had about herbs, Aunt Fahmi continued to tell me that parsley is a bright green herb that has a mild grassy taste and contains many vitamins, iron as well as anti-inflammatory properties. “Parsley is good for digestion. One should drink parsley tea regularly as it is known to flush toxins out of the body. Likewise, basil leaves are an excellent source of antioxidants. It is an indigenous Indian herb grown more than 5,000 years ago,” she said delving into history. “Besides intensifying the colour and flavours of your cuisine, you can make a paste of basil leaves, besan and rose water. Apply the mixture on your face daily and see your pores shrink. It’s a better facial mask as opposed to the chemical peels they sell you at beauty parlours these days.” Aunt Fahmi also knew some beauty tips!

Herbs can amp up the flavour of your food to the next level

Fascinated by the magic of herbs in the culinary world, I called celebrity chef Gulzar Hussain, who filled me in about how different herbs lend flavour to his recipes. “I use herbs in conjunction with a variety of spices, seeds and nuts,” he told me during the conversation, “because that’s when the flavour of herbs becomes truly magical. The taste is somewhat subtle yet it complements the major players of your dish. My favourite is oregano, though I use also thyme, rosemary, lavender, lemon balm, etc.” When I asked him what he usually prepares with herbs, his chirpy one-line answer was, “Any dish you cook!”

Hussain explained the flavour and health benefits of each herb. “When using fresh herbs, the leaves should be bruised slightly so the flavour diffuses easily into the dish. Oregano has a slightly balsamic, pungent taste. It can overpower the aromas of other herbs and spices, therefore less is more. Add a small amount first; if you like the gutsy taste then sprinkle more. When consumed in food, oregano serves as an anti-inflammatory herb, which boosts immunity and detoxifies the body. However, a word of advice: never add herbs while preparing the base of a dish as high temperatures will destroy or alter their taste and health benefits,” he added.

Next on Hussain’s list was thyme; it is bright green with a soft, minty and lemony flavour. “The best thing about thyme is that it goes well with meat, poultry, fish and even vegetables,” he said. “Soups and stews are lavishly garnished with this herb and, when used in sauces, its subtle minty taste works well in the background along with hot spices. On the other hand, we have rosemary, which is from the same family but has a contrasting taste. It is a bold herb that tends to overpower other spices used in the dish, therefore, use a light hand. Rosemary has a robust lemonish, pine-like taste,” Hussain said.

Dried thyme is used for potpourris, mouthwashes, tea and aroma therapy. Thyme oil has been used as a medicine since ancient times; even today herbalists prescribe thyme oil to help women with menstrual problems. Rosemary is a natural deterrent for insects, while rosemary oil stimulates hair growth. Apply the oil on your scalp and feel the difference!

“Lately, a lot of people have started to experiment with a variety of primeval, ayurvedic herbs, because apart from yielding great taste, these herbs have numerous health and medicinal benefits.”

When Hussain mentioned lavender, recollections of my grandma’s lavender cake came to my mind. It had a floral, apple-like, vaguely-minty flavour combined with lemon and cream. “Sprinkle the cream-coated lavender sprigs on the cake,” she used to tell me fondly. Grandma used lavender for garnishing savoury dishes too, though sparingly, “one needs to know their way around lavender when used in the kitchen, it’s tricky,” she would say. I remember she even had lavender oil placed on her dressing table and would apply it on her face every night before retiring to bed. “Use it; the acne on your face will improve,” she used to advise.

“You must have had fish tarragon?” Hussain’s voice pulled me back. “Yes, it is prepared in white sauce also known as Bechamel sauce,” I replied foolishly. “True, but have you noticed the green herb on it? That’s tarragon,” Hussain said, “it goes best with fish and chicken. It has a bittersweet taste. Tarragon leaves can ease toothaches and relieve anxiety.”

Towards the end of our conversation I asked Hussain if all these herbs were available in Pakistan. “Yes, they are imported and are available at affordable prices,” he informed.

With so much taste and flavour, herbs are surely worth including in our lives. Include them and taste the difference!

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 4th, 2018