In Italy, relish mint gelato;
in England, dine on lamb and mint jelly;
in the Alps sip minty liqueurs;
in Morocco slurp mint tea;
in Greece, nibble on dolmades;
in Lebanon, enjoy mint-flavored tabouleh;
in Vietnam savor goi cuon;
in India feast on biryani;
in Thailand appreciate nam sod;
and the list goes on …

Besides food, let us not forget that mint flavors our toothpaste, breath fresheners, cough drop, and chewing gum to give that cool, refreshing feeling.

Mint has a place of prominence in every cuisine around the world.

A reason for mint’s popularity is that it grows and spreads easily. If you plant mint in your garden, beware, as its underground rhizomes will grow in, out, and around all garden plants. The trick is to continuously pull it out in the wet months if it becomes invasive.

My aunt did not control the mint in her kitchen garden for five years, and now has much more than she can ever use in her cooking. She has found a unique use of mint. She makes a puree of mint leaves with water and applies it as a facemask every week. She asserts that mint works wonders for her skin!

A somewhat tall plant, mint (Mentha sp.) has an intense aroma and intricate, pale purple flowers. Although indigenous to Europe and the Mediterranean, about 600 varieties of mint are cultivated throughout the world today.

The genus name Mentha is derived from Roman mythology. Minthe was a lovely young nymph who caught the eye of Pluto, the ruler of the underworld. When Pluto’s wife Persephone found out about his love for the beautiful nymph, she was enraged. She changed Minthe into a lowly plant, to be trodden underfoot. Pluto couldn’t reverse Persephone’s curse, but he did soften the spell somewhat by making the smell that Minthe gave off all the sweeter when she was tread upon.

If you have more mint than you can consume, use it as a room freshener. In India they hang fresh bunches of mint in doorways and open windows, allowing the breeze to carry the scent throughout the house. The aroma of mint is said to symbolize hospitality so this would be especially nice if you were expecting company. This is also a good herb for keeping ants away from doors and combating mice and fleas.

Mint adds a clean and refreshing flavor to soups, salads, sauces, meats, fish, poultry, stews, and chocolate dishes. Spearmint and peppermint are the most common varieties used in cooking. Peppermint is more often used for candies and teas while spearmint complements savory dishes like lamb, peas, and other vegetables as well as fruits and chocolate. The fresh leaves make an attractive garnish for just about any dish.

Mint has a significant place in Indian cuisine. It is used in chutney; lamb, fish, and chicken dishes; and the all-popular biryani.

I love to experiment with mint. Here are my favorite creations.

MINTY TOFU KABAB

Freezing tofu alters its texture. It becomes dense and absorbs more flavors. Freezing removes some of its liquid content, giving it a firmer, meaty consistency. Freezing is a wonderful technique that can be applied only to firm tofu. Silken tofu should not be frozen.

½ cup mint leaves
3-4 green chilies
¼ cup sesame seeds
¼ cup peanuts
¼ cup plain yogurt
1 teaspoon salt (or as per taste)
½ teaspoon sugar
1 red bell pepper (chopped into one-inch pieces)
10-12 white pearl onions
10-12 cherry tomatoes
1 packet tofu, frozen and then thawed
1 tablespoon oil

In a blender, add mint, chilies, sesame seeds, peanuts, yogurt, salt, and sugar. Make a puree. Keep aside.

Thaw the frozen tofu and squeeze out as much water as possible. Chop into one-inch cubes. Place the cubes in a big bowl and add the mint puree. Marinate for at least two hours. (For more intense flavor, marinate overnight.)

Heat a frying pan and place the marinated tofu cubes in it in a single layer. Add a few drops of oil around each cube, but do not disturb them. With a spatula, apply pressure on each cube to squeeze out the moisture. Let them cook on each side till golden brown and flip the cubes.

Remove from heat and place these tofu cubes on a skewer with tomatoes, onions, and bell pepper.

Serve on a bed of white rice.

Hema’s Hints: For variation you may replace paneer or chicken cubes for tofu in this recipe.

COUSCOUS SALAD

Couscous is a coarsely ground semolina pasta. The grain is a staple in many North African countries. Over the last decade, it has cropped up on American menus and dinner tables. Packaged parboiled couscous is now available in many grocery stores. Couscous can be prepared in just five minutes. Simply follow the instructions on the package for foolproof, fluffy couscous every time. As a rule, 1/3 cup of dry couscous will yield one cup of cooked couscous. I recommend using whole wheat couscous to boost your intake of fiber. For variation, alter any ingredient except mint. It is the key ingredient in this recipe.

2 cups cooked whole wheat couscous
1 cup chopped cucumber
1 cup chopped tomatoes (remove pulp and seeds)
½ cup pomegranate seeds (optional)
½ cup chopped red onion
½ cup roasted almonds, chopped
2-3 green chilies, minced (optional)
½ cup fresh mint, chopped
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ teaspoon sugar
salt as per taste

Mix the couscous, cucumber, tomatoes, pomegranate seeds, onion, almonds, chilies, and mint in a large bowl. Whisk together lemon juice, olive oil, sugar, and salt. Pour over the couscous salad and toss. Cover and refrigerate for at least two hours.

Hema’s Hints: This is an excellent salad to take to work or picnics, but always serve it chilled.

Hema Alur-Kundargi is the producer, editor, and host of the television show Indian Vegetarian Gourmet (DVDs now available at the Sunnyvale and Cupertino libraries in Northern California). Visit her website at www.massala.com
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