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Our little secret

August 1, 2011

I have a secret crop in my garden. Let’s keep this between you and me and not mention anything to those black helicopters. It’s starting to become lush – and fragrant – and it’s slowly getting bigger. I devoted most of a manure- and worm-casting-fertilized raised bed to it, but I threw in a couple of beefsteak tomatoes to disguise it. I’m starting to get excited about a harvest I didn’t think was in the cards, and I’m already planning how I can dry it and vacuum seal it and make a nice stash for the coming year.

This growing experiment started last summer, when I happened upon a plant by sheer luck. But my interest in the herb was piqued some ten years ago when I hung around in Boston’s Chinatown. Okay, I wasn’t really hanging around. I was shopping for groceries. After bringing my then-toddler daughter to the Museum of Science for classes, I would pop into Chinatown to pick up yard-long beans, big bags of rice, rice paper wrappers, dried shrimp and mushrooms, peanut oil, every kind of sauce we could think of and maybe a big nasty durian fruit for chuckles. We came home loaded with Asian foodstuffs, cutlery and steamer baskets. And, so, the Asian cookbook collection grew in response to our unbridled shopping.

I ran into a clever recipe in Anita Loh-Yien Lau’s excellent little book Asian Greens. It was an Asian pesto featuring peanuts instead of pine nuts and a cilantro- and mint-flavored herb called “rau ram” in place of basil. Helping us on our search were the descriptions in the index of Asian vegetables. It was a narrow green leaf, “ribbed with a purple hue.”  I put it on my list and hit a Super 88 on the outskirts of Chinatown. I found one purple and green herb in the back of the store where the vegetables were kept, but the placard was in an Asian script and the leaf was decidedly heart-shaped rather than narrow. The closest Super 88 workers were seated on some empty crates nearby and I tried to ask them about rau ram, holding out the bunches of purple-green herb. One woman laughed when I inquired and launched into relating what seemed to be an incredibly funny story to her co-worker. After a hearty guffaw was had by both, the joke-teller waved her hand at me and retreated to the employees-only warehouse. Her co-worker looked at the herb, furrowed her brow and nodded, “Mhmm, rau ram.”

By this time my daughter was halfway through a bag of dried cuttlefish, and we gathered our wares and checked out. The pesto turned out delicious, but I soon discovered the rau ram we bought was no such thing. I compared our purchase with internet photos of the real deal and realized we were way off. Our leaves were green on top with purple undersides and had serrated edges. They tasted more like licorice than cilantro-mint. Rau ram leaves were small, tapered and shiny green. I have a batch of Vietnamese cilantro, or rau ram, growing in an herb bed now, and it boasts a strong, musky flavor that I can only describe as what Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium perfume would taste like if you sprayed it in your mouth.

Vietnamese cilantro, or rau ram

What we bought was perilla, or Korean sesame plant, or ggaennipThe minty licorice flavor was unforgettable, and though I ceased shopping in Chinatown as my daughter grew out of those long car trips, I periodically thought about that great, accidental pesto. Flash forward a decade to last summer and taking my toddler son on a little stroll around the community garden at Orleans’ Sea Call Farm. What to my wondering eyes did appear, but a perilla plant in full leafy glory! It was not in a private plot, but nestled amongst rosemary and lavender in a little herb garden. I tasted a leaf and he tasted one too, and I wondered who planted it, why and how.

Late last fall we returned to the community garden, looking for fallen apples and pears. The plots were barren, but that little perilla was still there, dry and stiff with its little seed-loaded flowers hardened and crisp. I glanced around guiltily and snapped off a couple of stalks. Even dead as a doornail it still smelled delicious. I tucked the dried flowers in a paper bag and forgot about them for the winter. Then, in late spring, I discovered the bag and enlisted my 3-year-old son to help me plant the tiny, round seeds in flats. We rattled the bag and shook the seeds from their berths, then tried very hard to only plant a couple per cell. We watered them and put them in a sunny place, rotating the tray and putting them outside on nice days to prevent legginess, a difficult task without firing up the grow-lights on the seed-starting table.

I was thrilled when they sprouted and tickled when they stayed squat. When one pair, then another, of true leaves appeared, I was truly hopeful, and I continued to baby them until I could safely plant them in the garden. Now they are lovely, though their growth is very slow. I hope they will develop enough by fall to provide us with seeds for another batch next summer. I’m also patiently waiting for the plants to get big enough to allow for harvesting the leaves so I can put together a batch of pesto and maybe gather some leaves to dry for the winter. I’m thinking roasted, home-butchered chicken with garlic, perilla and ginger, or maybe a warming winter tea of lemon balm and perilla.

Korean sesame plant, or perilla

If you happen run across this fragrant herb in an Asian grocery, or know someone who grows perilla in the community garden or their own backyard, here is a nice little pesto that is tremendous over freshly caught bluefish or as a dressing for soba noodles.

Adapted from Anita Loh-Yien Lau’s Asian Pesto from her cookbook Asian Greens:

Juice of one lime

1 cup Thai basil leaves

3 cups perilla leaves, lightly packed

1/2 cup toasted, unsalted peanuts, ground

1 small chili pepper, seeded and chopped

3 big cloves garlic, minced

1 tsp ginger root, minced

1/3 cup vegetable or peanut oil

Mix together all the ingredients and heat in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer for 3 minutes. Chill before using.

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