Culinary influences that have shaped the world‘s various food cultures vary, but one sure thing is that they all include herbs and spices. It is no surprise as they add flavour to foods in numerous interesting ways, from enhancing the taste to adding colour.
Spices play an essential role in your everyday life. If you’re in for ideas to spice up your cooking, this article is just for you with insights into the different types of Asian herbs and spices and their uses.
What is a herb?
A herb is a seed plant that does not develop persistent woody tissue or stems. At the end of a growing season the plants usually die. They come in various shapes and sizes, depending on where they grow and are mainly used for flavouring and garnishing dishes. Most herbs are used fresh, but they can be dried for later use. Some herbs are grown specifically for use in cooking, while others are grown for medicinal purposes.
What is a spice?
The word ‘spice’ originates from the Latin word species and refers to an item of special value. A spice is a seed, fruit, root, bark, or other plant substance primarily used for flavouring or colouring food. Some are known for their medicinal properties, just like the benefits of white pepper, which was formerly used to treat snake bites, eye diseases, and even antidotes.
Spices originate from tropical regions worldwide, including Asia. They come in many forms, including powders, flakes, and granules. Powdered spices are ground into smaller particles, which make them easier to measure. Flakes and granules are usually larger pieces of spices mixed with other ingredients before being cooked.
There are two main categories of spices:
- Dry spices
Because of their longer shelf life, many prefer dry spices, like those from Spices and Co. They tend to taste stronger because they contain essential oils. These oils give dry spices their characteristic aroma and flavour.
- Wet spices
Wet spices taste milder because they are usually cooked and mixed with a liquid to turn into a paste. Therefore, they provide a lot of moisture.
How do you use Asian herbs and spices?
Each herb or spice has unique characteristics. This quick guide will help you get started on how to use them for optimal benefits.
This fragrant herb is often used as a garnish for dishes. Basil contains volatile oils that have antibacterial and antifungal properties. It tastes best when freshly picked. Use freshly chopped basil in dressings, soups, pasta, sauces, and even cocktails. Use the entire leaves as a garnish to finish and present dishes.
Coriander is known as an aromatic herb with notes of flowers and citrus. It is used fresh to finish salads. However, coriander seeds are usually crushed, then sprinkled on curries, roasted, or ground into a powder. The powder can is used to season meat, fish, vegetables, and desserts.
Garlic is one of the most popular herbs around the world. Its pungent flavour enhances the taste of many dishes. Chop fresh garlic cloves and sprinkle them onto meats, poultry, and seafood. In Asia, whole heads of garlic are often sliced and sautéed to garnish soups and salad.
Fresh ginger root is often called a herb while dried powder is widely known as a spice. We can inform you that it is officially a spice! This is probably the most popular spice in Chinese cuisine and tastes great in stir-fry recipes, soups, and stews. Freshly grated ginger roots are often added to sauces, marinades, and condiments. Ginger also contains volatile oils with anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties, making it a perfect remedy for sore muscles and joints.
Kaffir Lime Leaves
These leaves are native to Southeast Asia. They can be found fresh or dried and impart a citrusy flavour to dishes. Fresh leaves should be rinsed thoroughly and the nerve needs to be taken out before adding them to your recipes. Kaffir lime leaves are popular in Thai cuisine where they are an important ingredient to curries.
Lemongrass grows in a tropical climate and is another ingredient that is used extensively in Thai cuisine. The lemony flavour adds freshness to stir fried dishes and the well know ‘tom yam kung’ or lemongrass soup
When cutting lemongrass, start by cutting away the bottom of the stem and remove any tough outer layers. Give the stalk a good smash to release the aroma more easily. Then, divide the rest of the stalk into two-inch sections or use it as a whole.
Mint is a common ingredient in Indian cuisine. Mint leaves are added to drinks, salads, and desserts, or rubbed over food just prior to serving. They’re also an excellent addition to fruit juices, smoothies, and cocktails. Don’t ignore fresh mint tea, it is very refreshing and a great digestive.
Nutmeg is native from Indonesia. It is the seed from the nutmeg tree, and in Asian cuisines primarily used in baked goods, such as cakes and pastries. Nutmeg is best used freshly grated or ground into a fine powder. Use it with moderation as the strong aroma and taste will easily overpower other ingredients. In Western culture it is also called the ‘festive powder’ as it is very often used to flavour Christmas dishes. Get inspired with our pumpkin spice mix.
It might come as a surprise to many but parsley is widely used throughout Asia. The stems are used to flavour soups, stews, and sauces while the leaves are used to garnish vegetables and salads. Parsley blends especially well with fish, eggs, and red meats.
Pepper is a common seasoning and black pepper is more specifically used in Asian cuisines. It’s available whole, cracked, or ground, and can be added to soups, broths, and stews. A sprinkle of cracked black pepper on top of ingredients will finish any dish with a kick. Please note that pepper is powerful and only a little is needed.
Grinding pepper and salt at the table is a really nice way for everyone to get exactly the taste they enjoy. Plus, it is much fresher and flavourful to use a pepper grinder than using store-bought ground in a plastic bag.
Star anise is the star shaped fruit of the Chinese evergreen tree Illicium verum. It can be added as a whole to stews to flavour the dish with its particular sweet-licorice-peppery flavour. It needs to be removed and discarded from the dish before serving. Another way is to crush the pods and grind the seeds into a fine powder to season meat, poultry, fish, and shellfish.
Final thoughts on Asian herbs
The best way to find the perfect Asian herbs and spices is to experiment with combinations and see what works best for you. Give it a chance and be adventurous! Try new ingredients in existing recipes or challenge yourself and add some new recipes to your list. Most importantly, don’t forget to share them!