Unfamiliar Ingredients

Six months ago I was at Hong Kong Market, and noticed they were selling plants near the entrance. There were a few citrus trees, some ornamental shrubs and a few different herbs. I recognized one from a dish I’d had at 9 Roses some time back. I bought two small plants and planted them in my backyard, in between some basil and some okra.

The way I remember it, the herb was part of the garnish on a dish of thinly sliced, raw beef with lemon. The dish is Bò Tái Chanh, and I suppose the closest analog to European cuisine is carpaccio, with the herb – which is called Rice Paddy herb in English, and in Vietnamese, Rau ngô, or Rau om, standing in for arugula.

It’s very hard to describe rice paddy herb’s aroma: there’s lemon, but it’s also slightly floral, and I think there’s a little cucumber in there as well. Some people detect cumin, and I suppose I can see that, but what I know for certain is that I was taken by it immediately when I first tasted it.

I also know that the plant loves my backyard, and has spread rapidly. From my admittedly cursory research, I learned it loves heat and humidity, and some cultivars are used as aquarium plants. It’s got pretty little purple flowers, small saw-toothed leaves and stems that remind me of purslane, which is, by the way, also edible. You’ve walked past some purslane in the last 24 hours, if you’ve been outside.

But I digress. While I am happy that the plant has done so well in my garden, I’d feel even better if I could say I’d used it more than once or twice in the last several months. I added it to a salad along with some other herbs, and that worked out well; then I used it as part of the herb garnish (along with cilantro, basil and mint) for some spring rolls I made. That was about six weeks ago, and I haven’t figured out a use for it since.

With rice paddy herb, I at least have the excuse that it’s rare. When I bought it, I asked a clerk what it was called, and she said, “we just call it ‘mint’.” I have no such excuse for the guavas I picked up at Ideal Market this evening. The truth is, I thought they were some sort of citrus when I bought them, because they are small, yellow and smell something like a Meyer lemon.

But then I cut one in half, and it’s essentially a lot of cottony-looking membrane holding together huge numbers of hard, inedible seeds. The membrane has a sweet-tart flavor with a little banana thrown in. The variety I bought are white-fleshed, as opposed to the more common red or pink. I like to think I know how to use a lot of uncommon ingredients, but I have no idea how to use these guavas. The only thing I’ve come up with in the 10 minutes I spent looking, is to make jelly, as I have read that there is a lot of natural pectin in guavas, and I’ll be damned if I don’t like me some pectin.

So over the weekend, when I have a chance to catch up from what is currently a pretty insane work schedule, I will try to come up with some ways to use my rice paddy herb, and my guavas, and for good measure the vast amount of Thai basil, okra and mint I have taking over various quarters of my garden.

If you have a recipe I could use for any of the above, please share. When I do come up with something (and I will, eventually) I’ll do the same.   



Categories: Haute Plates, Recipes