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Herb appeal

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Inhale and revel in the citrusy fragrance of lemon grass, an irresistible cooking herb. So why isn't it as mainstream as rosemary and thyme?

Fresh Asian cooking herbs are more mysterious than familiar to American cooks, who too often have a cabinet stuffed with bottled dry herbs stamped with long-ago expiration dates. In Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, China and other nations, herbs are simple staples to be enjoyed in everyday cooking.

Mai Pham, cookbook author and owner of Sacramento's Lemon Grass restaurant, was born in Vietnam and grew up in Southeast Asia.

"All we do is pluck them, wash them and add them to food," she says. "It's something Americans can do very easily. Fresh herbs are unique, very aromatic, very fragrant and refreshing. And it's so easy."

As a speaker at a recent food conference, Pham brought several fresh Asian herbs, placed them in clear plastic cups and passed them around to participants.

"They'd never seen them, never smelled them and didn't know what to do with them," she says. "For people looking for new flavors without adding fat to the diet, they're a great asset, a great resource."

Celebrity chef Ming Tsai, host of the PBS cooking show "Simply Ming," says diners at his Blue Ginger restaurant in Boston never complain about dishes seasoned with Thai basil, lemon grass and mint. Lemon grass, he adds, also is used in desserts such as the restaurant's lemon grass-poached apples.

"It's so much better than just lemon, because lemon grass not only has citrus elements, but the perfume," Tsai says.

Availability limits the use of fresh Asian herbs in American kitchens. Major supermarkets stock lemon grass (sometimes), cilantro and spearmint. Otherwise, shopping for fresh Asian herbs is an adventure.

Thai basil, red and green perilla, fish mint, Vietnamese coriander and Chinese chives can be found at some farmers markets and a handful of Asian markets such as Vinh Phat at 6105 Stockton Blvd. and S.F. Supermarket at 6930 65th Street Expressway.

Watching the frenzied buying of these herbs that goes on at farmers markets answers any questions about demand. Some can be purchased farm-fresh as late as November.

Growing them is simple. Many are warm-season annuals, but a few are perennials that will come back year after year. Plucking tender leaves from your own plant ensures heightened flavor and the ultimate in freshness.

"They make beautiful plants," Pham says. "I have my Thai basil until the first frost. They'll keep producing if you take care of them."

Cilantro can be purchased at nurseries, but its life span is short in hot weather. You'll have to plant it every couple of weeks. Fortunately, it is readily available at most mainstream markets and all Asian markets.

Cilantro may be the most familiar Asian herb because it is an important ingredient of several cuisines. Tsai says cilantro is the most versatile and the most consumed herb in the world. Cilantro also is called fresh coriander and Chinese parsley.

"It adds a bright herbiness to soups as a garnish," Tsai says. "Mexicans use a ton for all their salsas. The leaves have a fresher flavor, but the stems are very valuable. In Southeast Asian cuisines, when you make wet curry pastes, you want the fiber that the stems provide. It's very Chinese that you don't want to throw anything away."

He admits to "hating it as a kid." He says he forced himself to develop a taste and respect for cilantro. The flavor has been described as pungent, musky, citrusy, like burning rubber and, yes, like soap.

"At first, it tasted like soap to me, but once you have enough of it you can appreciate the nuances," he says. "My epiphany came at a Chinese banquet where every single dish had cilantro in it. I thought, 'You're either going to starve or give in.' So I decided to dive in."

Tsai, known for fusion cuisine that mixes Eastern and Western ingredients, includes cilantro in his Asian pesto. It combines not only cilantro but Thai basil and mint. Instead of the traditional pine nuts, he adds macadamia nuts and excludes cheese.

He also combines those same three herbs - Thai basil, cilantro and mint - in his Thai lime dipping sauce. The sauce complements seafood and chicken dishes.

Vietnamese coriander or rau ram (pronounced raw-rum) has long, pointed leaves instead of the ruffled leaves of coriander.

"Rau ram has spicy leaves," Pham says. "It's most delicious just harvested and tender in salads and soups."

Like Tsai's early encounters with cilantro, Pham didn't at first care for another fresh herb cherished by the Vietnamese - fish mint. And, yes, it does taste a bit fishy.

"It really grows on you," she says. "It has leaves that look like arrowheads and is an aggressive grower. In fact, there's one type used as a ground cover here."

Thai basil is a much more palatable herb and is used extensively in Asian cuisine. It's Pham's favorite. Tender top leaves and the purplish flowers of Thai basil are ideal in salads and sandwiches, she says. Pham prefers the older, lower basil leaves in stir-fry dishes. Thai basil has a delicate, anise (licorice) flavor.

"Add some garlic and ginger to the leaves for more pizazz," Pham says. "I use it as a base for many dishes. Put half the basil leaves in the base and then add the rest a half-minute before taking the food out. That way you get two different flavors from the same basil leaves."

Tsai is partial to lemon grass with Kaffir lime leaves.

"Those are really the base flavors of Southeast Asian cuisines," he says. "It would be tough in Thai cuisine not to use lemon grass and Kaffir lime. They're used just like ginger is used in Chinese cooking."

If you're using these herbs in a broth, remember to strain the pieces of lemon grass. When Tsai was a young man on a first date, he once made the mistake of chewing on a fibrous stick of lemon grass.

"I chewed and chewed and chewed, and it seemed to get bigger and bigger," he says. "Finally, I had to spit it out into my napkin."

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