Mint in the mideast and beyond

Ask your friends how they use mint, and they're most likely to say, "In tea."

mint leaves 88 (photo credit: )
mint leaves 88
(photo credit: )
Ask your friends how they use mint, and they're most likely to say, "In tea." So I was surprised when an American friend asked me, as we sat at an Israeli cafe in Los Angeles, what those green sprigs were that waiters were putting in people's glasses. He had seen mint tea, but it came in packets. My friend also did not realize that mint tea can mean two different beverages: herbal tea made from steeping mint leaves in hot water, or "real" tea made with tea leaves or tea bags, as well as mint. Europeans use mint mostly to garnish desserts, except for the English, who like it in jelly. Yet mint has many more uses, and its refreshing character is prized in cuisines from North Africa to East Asia. Persians have a wonderfully simple way of serving fresh mint. To begin a meal, they set out sprigs of mint, chives and other herbs, and roll up the herbs together with cubes of feta cheese in pieces of flatbread. The mint beautifully balances the salty taste of the cheese. The Vietnamese also serve plates of mint sprigs, together with cilantro (fresh coriander) and bean sprouts. Often they accompany bowls of hot broth that contains thin rice noodles and cubes of beef or tofu. Diners pick mint leaves off the stems and add them to the soup, along with a squeeze of lime juice. The fresh flavors do wonders to perk up the aromatic broth. From Tunisia to Thailand, mint is a great favorite in salads. Try making Israeli cucumber-tomato-onion salad with fresh mint instead of the parsley, and you'll get Shirazi salad, a popular Persian appetizer. In fact, if you add both mint and parsley, as well as bulgur wheat, you'll get the famous Middle Eastern tabbouleh. An elaborate Tunisian variation, known simply as "Tunisian salad," calls for diced tomatoes mixed with sweet and hot peppers and mint, then garnished with olives, sliced hard boiled eggs, strips of firm white cheese and tuna. I love the way Thai cooks use fresh mint to moderate the powerful pungency of their chile-based sauces. Like the Vietnamese, they often use the mint leaves whole, adding them to salads of grilled beef or seafood with hot and sour dressings flavored with chil[es, lime juice and onions, and to spicy stir-fries of chicken or eggplant with chilies. Dried mint is used as often as fresh in Middle Eastern cooking. A popular Turkish technique calls for briefly sizzling dried mint in oil or butter together with chopped garlic or ground pepper. Just before serving a hot dish, such as red lentil soup, you drizzle the aromatic mixture quickly over the top. Persians use this trick to enhance the taste of their delicious eggplant salad with fried onions and yogurt sauce, and to enliven hearty meat soups with rice and beans. Tunisians use dried mint too, especially in ground meat dishes; the mint's refreshing quality acts as a foil for the richness of the meat. Greeks use mint in cheese-flavored vegetable patties, in meatballs and in meat - and rice-based stuffings for vegetables, as well as in their famous spinach and feta filo pie, spanakopita. In the cuisine of India, mint has a prominent place in flavoring fresh chutneys, which are staples of the Indian table. When we took a Yemenite cousin of ours to an Indian restaurant, he tasted the bright green chutney, and exclaimed with surprise - "s'hug with mint!" Indeed, the relish had the same ingredients as his mother's s'hug - hot green chilies, garlic and cilantro as well as mint. But Indian cooks don't stop there. Neelam Batra, author of 1,000 Indian Recipes, makes a variety of mint chutneys flavored with fresh coconut, ground nuts, peanuts and tamarind. She uses fresh mint and ginger in her marinade for chicken tikka (Indian kabobs) and makes mint curry sauce for vegetables and seafood. Her mint tea is completely different from the familiar Israeli type: it contains cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, fennel seeds and cloves. According to Batra, mint tea is considered an effective cold and sore throat remedy. In addition, she writes, "mint leaves are a natural antiseptic that keep the mouth fresh and the taste buds healthy." Lemony Lentil Salad with Mint This versatile dish features lentils flavored with sauteed onions, garlic, mint and parsley and is finished with fine olive oil. Prepare it ahead and marinate the lentils in their sauce if you like. Served hot, cold or at room temperature, it makes a tasty salad, a vegetarian main course with fresh bread, rice or pasta, or an accompaniment for grilled meat or chicken. To present it as part of a buffet, mound it on a bed of lettuce or garnish it with tomato and cucumber slices. Be sure to include fresh lemon wedges for each person to squeeze onto his or her portion. 1 cup lentils, sorted and rinsed 2 cups water 2 onions, chopped 3 garlic cloves, minced 1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint or 1 teaspoon dried mint 3 to 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 2 tablespoons lemon juice, or to taste 3 tablespoons chopped parsley Lemon wedges (for serving) Combine lentils and 2 cups water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil. Cover and cook over medium heat about 20 minutes or until lentils are just tender but still firm. In a heavy skillet heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium heat. Add onions and saute, stirring occasionally, until they are golden brown, about 10 minutes. Add to lentils. Stir in garlic, mint, remaining oil, lemon juice and 2 tablespoons parsley. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve sprinkled with remaining parsley and accompanied by lemon wedges. Makes 4 servings. Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.