x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Herbs feed you, heal you and deter pests

It's summer, and as usual, my herb garden is under construction until further notice. My intention is to avoid the pang of guilt I feel every time I approach the boxed fresh-herb rack at the produce market.

Lemon thyme, rosemary, sage and oregano in bloom.
Lemon thyme, rosemary, sage and oregano in bloom.

It's summer, and as usual, my herb garden is under construction until further notice. I have no intention of trying to grow herbs like the lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves that went into last night's soup, nor even the wild thyme for zaatar, the ubiquitous spice mixture with sesame seeds, sumac and salt (although zaatar happens to also be an umbrella term for a whole family of herbs including oregano, basil, thyme and savory).

Rather, my intention is to avoid the pang of guilt I feel every time I approach the boxed fresh-herb rack at the produce market. I feel guilt, too, when I see the herb farmer at the farmers' market with his little pots of sweet Genovese basil that I could easily transplant, if only I had the commitment to water it daily. But the most unbearable guilt, by far, is the tidal wave that hits me when throwing out yet another box of shrivelled refrigerated herbs that have gone unused. I almost never use dried herbs, but I'm addicted to expensive, fresh herbs the way some women are addicted to manicures. I just can't help myself.

Herbs rotate through my kitchen daily. Last month, I was still using sage in wintry dishes. Last week, there was marjoram in the roast chicken. Tomorrow, there'll be basil in the pesto, coriander in the guacamole, and rosemary in the polenta cake we had for dessert. In general, herbs do not constitute the bulk of a dish - though an honourable exception is tabbouleh, made with parsley and mint. A herb can be just about any kind of plant and any part of its anatomy: leaf, resin, root, flower, seed.

You say tomato, I say "erbs" - without the h - an inexplicable and irritating American practice to those who favour standard British English, where the h is pronounced. I used the word "herb" a lot while doing a degree in traditional Chinese medicine, which involved a lot of herbology. Although dried herbs are by definition not fresh, some are fresher than others, as I discovered after watching in a mixture of horror and delight as tiny worms floated to the surface of the simmering water in my very first pot of homemade Chinese herbal tea.

The medicinal effects of herbs have been documented in both the Quran and the Bible. Today, indigenous Emirati herbal formulas are studied at Abu Dhabi's Zayed Complex for Herbal Research and Traditional Medicine. The medieval Hellenistic Islamic philosopher and physician Ibn Sina (c.980-1037) devised an entire medical system and he, too, was a huge proponent of medical herbs. In addition to medicinal herbs of dubious origin, some culinary herbs can have a nauseating effect - cilantro (or coriander, as it's also known, particularly when in seed form) being the most common. Like dill, cilantro is used in both seed and plant form. But it isn't for everyone.

In a 2002 interview with Larry King, for example, the celebrated American cook Julia Child admitted to disliking cilantro and arugula, saying: "They're both green herbs; they have kind of a dead taste to me? I would pick it out if I saw it and throw it on the floor." Child isn't alone. Though she was wrong about arugula being a herb, cilantro (which I love), contains aldehydes similar to those found in soaps and lotions and the bug family of insects.

According to the Oxford Companion to Food, the word "coriander" itself comes from the Greek word for bedbug. I say cilantro, you say coriander. Or, I say ambrosia, you say soap. Cilantro, native to the eastern Mediterranean, is one of the world's most ubiquitous green herbs, used all over Asia and Latin America. And cilantro pesto is said to have deeper roots in Mediterranean cuisine than versions made with basil.

In New Mexico, the sensuous aroma of burning sage signifies that someone is "smudging" or performing a spiritual cleansing. But the scent of a basil plant on a city balcony in Abu Dhabi smells a thousand times more dizzyingly wonderful. Tragically condemned to a legacy of mediocre Caprese salads, basil is one of world's greatest flavours, and there are countless varieties of it; sweet Genovese basil (the most common), Thai basil, lemon basil, holy basil, purple basil.

When I can get them, I like lemon verbena, lemon mint and lemon thyme in desserts. Aside from bay leaves, I don't use dried herbs, except as a form of natural pest control. Adapted from a recipe by wool spinners and weavers, cheesecloth bags filled with a cup of dried rosemary mixed with half a cup of mint, a quarter cup of thyme and two tablespoons of cloves can be tucked into cupboards and drawers to repel moths, as can sachets of dried lavender or rosemary and mint. Muslin bags can be stuffed with sage, mint, rosemary and pinches of cinnamon and dried lemon peel and used in place of moth balls - and they smell much nicer.

My little herb garden is going to have to work hard to keep up.