What's the Malay word for Mint?, I ask my dad at the market, determined to get some this time. He walks over to the lady whose vegetable stand we're at and asks her if she has the herb you put in Penang Laksa. Why didn't I think of that- I've tried unsuccessfully describing it as crinkly, fresh tasting, the flavor in toothpaste- to blank looks. Penang Laksa, a Thai influenced riff on the local Laksa characteristically has mint in it. She deliberates, then points to some bundles, at first indistiguishable from the others in a huge pile, but I'll be durned, it's mint. This is the herb I was asking you about, what do you call it in Indonesia?, I ask the maid when we get home. I don't know, we don't use it there, she replies.
Interestingly the herb she does use a lot of is something called Daun Salam (the largest leaf in the picture) or Indonesian Bay Leaf. I've eaten it many times now in the dishes she's prepared but can't really tell you exactly what is it's unique flavor except that it's fairly complex, subtle, certainly not like a bay leaf, perhaps smoky and plays a visual role too like dark green Basil leaves in a tomato sauce. They don't seem to use it much locally here either, I don't think I've had it before now, which might explain why it's one of the few herbs she has growing in the garden to ensure it's supply.
We both however are familiar with Kaffir Lime leaves, Citrus Hystrix (the twin lobed leaf), but we use them differently. She uses them as an interesting accent particularly in a heavily spiced meat curry called Rendang which immediately distinguishes it from the local Malay version and also in a fried crispy snack with rice flour and peanuts. I use them in Thai recipes like Green Curry or Tom Yum where the leaves work with lime juice and lemon grass to broaden flavors that are all about sharp, sour and citrus. She says there are many trees in her village with this leaf. I remember first discovering lime leaves as a young boy on vacation in Thailand only because I remember my mother scrutinizing the dish, analyzing it's ingredients in the hope of recreating it when we got home.
Then there are Curry Leaves, Murraya Koenigii where we share some common ground- they are used almost exclusively in Indian curries. I learnt how to use them as a young adult watching Madhur Jaffrey on TV, she did working for an Indian family prior to working for us. I am tempted to experiment with this Ayurvedic staple as a replacement for Plantain in a salve given it's medicinal qualities.
In New York City I would buy kaffir and Curry leaves sealed in refrigerated plastic bags found in Little India and Chinatown. Here, branches of them are stacked in mounds and I can't help noticing the much enhanced freshness of their flavor. The Daun Salam on the other hand would travel well, it almost has no personality when fresh, only releasing it's essential oil when dry or heated in the pan.
I now discover that the mint I bought is Mentha Arvensis or Corn Mint, it doesn't quite have the brightness of flavor that Spearmint, Mentha Spicata does but a couple of bruised sprigs went straight into a glass of iced tea yesterday and I renewed my acquaintance with one of my favorite herbs. Today the maid asked what I wanted to do with the mint I put in the glass, she didn't throw it away, was I trying to grow it? No, but, hey, there's an idea, why didn't I think of that.