This is another extract from the book I wrote with Pam Vardy, Community Gardens: A Celebration of the People, Recipes and Plants. I am posting these extracts to show how much refugees and immigrants to our country have enhanced our lives. To highlight this I am focusing on unusual individual plants that we would not otherwise have available for our gardens or meals.
Long-leafed coriander (Eryngium foetidum) is also known as culantro. This strong smelling herb comes originally from central and southern America where is has been used for centuries to add flavour to soups and stews. It has been grown in Europe since the early 17th century. Culantro is now popular in Asia and is often seen naturalised around rural villages. Its recent introduction is reflected in its name, the Thai name ‘phak chee farang’ meaning ‘foreign coriander’, and the Vietnamese name ‘ngo gai’ meaning thorny coriander.
Description A low-growing herb to about 40 cm, culantro produces a rosette of stiff, dark green, elongated, toothed leaves. Strong stalks with toothed leaves grow from the centre of this, and these are topped by conical, pale green, tiny, pineapple-shaped flower heads. The whole plant is strongly pungent with a scent and flavour resembling coriander (Coriandrum sativum).
Culantro is a short-lived perennial that is treated as an annual in temperate regions. Grow from seed sown in punnets in winter or early spring, that can take several weeks to germinate. Plant seedlings out once they are big enough to handle easily. Space plants about 30 cm apart in all directions. This herb will grow in most soils as long as they are well-drained, and likes a position in semi-shade or with morning sun, as very hot afternoon sun causes it to wilt. Culantro also grows well in pots, and this has the added advantage of being able to move the pot into the shade, or indoors in autumn to prolong the growing season. Remove the flower heads to encourage leaf growth, and feed once a month or so with seaweed fertiliser or fish emulsion. Snails and slugs love culantro, so be vigilant in removing them or protect with a circle of ash or sawdust.
Leaves are eaten fresh and cooked in a range of dishes, especially those where the flavour of another ingredient needs to be disguised. Culantro is often used as a substitute for coriander, but unlike coriander it retains its flavour when dried. It is also sometimes substituted for garland chrysanthemum. Finely chopped leaves make an excellent garnish on all sorts of dishes, but in particular fish dishes. Stir chopped culantro into soups like Vietnamese beef and noodle or hot and sour fish soups, or add a whole leaf and remove before serving. Culantro is also used to flavour soups in Cambodia, while in Thailand and in Laos it is served fresh to accompany specially prepared fish and meat. It can also be added to steamed rice and tossed into mixed vegetables, curries and curry pastes. Culantro can be chopped and added to dips like hummus.
The Hmong people are an ethnic group who lived in the highlands of Vietnam and Laos. They were victimised by the communists when they came to power, and fled to the Ban Vinai refugee camp in Thailand. After very many years, some came Australia, and there are now Hmong communities in Tasmania and Melbourne, Victoria.
Ua Laj (Beef with herbs)
1/4 cup uncooked glutinous or sticky rice grain
1kg minced beef
1 tsp salt
1 bunch of long-leafed coriander, chopped
4 spring onions, chopped
1/4 bunch coriander leaves and stems, chopped
1 stalk of lemon grass, finely chopped (pinkish white part only)
5 hot red chillies, finely chopped (no seeds)
leaves of two stems of Vietnamese mint, chopped
1/2 a bunch of mint leaves, chopped
juice of 3 large lemons
1 tablespoon of fish sauce
In a non-stick frying pan, dry fry the rice until golden brown, stirring. Grind to a fine powder using a motar and pestle. Set aside. Add minced beef and salt to the frying pan and fry in its own fat, stirring, until browned. Drain off the liquid and reserve. Add the herbs and lemon juice to the meat and cook for a further few minutes. Stir in the rice flour, fish sauce and meat juice and heat through. Place in a serving dish and serve cold with lettuce leaves and cooked sticky rice. Serves 4.
To read about more unusual plants or different ways of using common plants, as well as the stories of some the people who made them available to us, Borrow Community Gardens from your library, buy it from you local bookshop or buy it online from my shop here.