Growing up, I loved mint, still do, but back then I had very fixed ideas of what mint was and where it belonged: in my gum, in my toothpaste, and most assuredly in my ice cream and my mom’s Creme de Menthe cake. Then I went to college and all my preconceived notions were dashed, and thank goodness!
First, Sven from Norway, and I became fast friends in college. He was very interested in finding a girlfriend, and frankly given his accent, and attending college in America’s heartland, he could have been homely (which Sven definitely was not) and still done well for himself, but he grumbled about his dating troubles. I promised to take him under my wing and introduce him to my friends. After running through a list of what I thought were girls with strong potential, he wrinkled his nose in disgust, to which I responded, “What’s wrong with them? They’re smart, well groomed, with assuredly minty fresh breath as most seemed to have gum at hand.” To which he responded that that was the problem. Apparently, mint was the scent of choice for his mom’s toilet bowl cleaner and he could not disassociate the scent from the task his mom performed. For me, the moral of that story was to stick to Juicy Fruit gum if you are interested in dating. This was the first time it occurred to me that mint was used as something other than a tasty ingredient for dessert.
Next, I hooked up with my college friend from Iran, who introduced me to the wonderful world of Persian and Middle Eastern cooking. For the first time I tried dried mint (you could do that?) and used in savory foods and drinks; suddenly the options for this herb just took off! Of course, I became curious as to how mint is used and perceived in other cultures and was determined to explore further, I found mint in curries, soups, salads, you name it. As a result, adding mint to just about anything I make has become second nature.
Types of Mint
Having known of spearmint, peppermint, doublemint (so named as it has oils of both spearmint and peppermint) I was still surprised to learn that there is over 600 varieties (a few sources claim nearly 3,500). As a result I am disappointed that a single variety is found in most grocers, generically labled “mint.”
According to Harold McGee in his book, On Food and Cooking, this family of herbs is the most generous around, for several reasons, they like the dry rocky Mediterranean scrublands that other plants wither at the prospect and they are promiscuous (breeders that is).
Other herbs in the Mint Family include:
- Lemon Balm
History and Folklore
Peppermint was probably first used in England, and its popularity spread to the European continent and to Africa, where it is very popular particularity in Northern Africa. Other mint varieties indigenous to Europe and Asia have been used for thousands of years.
Gernot Katzer states, “Other mint species are indigenous to Europe and Asia, and some are used since millennia. Cultivars in tropical Asia always derive from field mint and are, therefore, botanically not closely related to European peppermint, although they come close to peppermint in their culinary value. Mints from Western and Central Asia, however, are comparable not to peppermint but to horsemint and applemint.”
Romans spread basil to all corners of Europe. Mint was treasured as an important aromatic herb in medieval times.
When the colonists came to America they brought along their mints for teas for not only because it tasted good, but because it wasn’t taxed.
The species name Mentha is from Roman mythology. Minthe was a lovely nymph who caught Pluto’s wandering eye. All well and good until Pluto’s wife Persephone discovered his love for Minthe, and she became understandably enraged. She transformed Minthe into a lowly plant, fit only to be walked on. Pluto couldn’t reverse Persephone’s curse, but he softened the spell by making the scent Minthe gave off all the sweeter when she was tread upon. The name Minthe has changed to Mentha and become the name of the herb, mint.
Mint has long been associated with hospitality, Greek mythology details how two strangers were walking through a village, and the villagers ignored these travelers until an elderly couple offered them a meal. Before the four sat down for their meal, the couple rubbed the table with mint leaves to clean and freshen it. The strangers turned out to be the gods Zeus and Hermes in disguise. As a reward for the hospitality shown them, the gods turned the humble home into a temple, and mint the symbol of hospitality.
The Pharisees paid their tithes in mint (Mentha longifolia ‘Habak’), anise, and cumin according to Biblical record. In Babylon, mint was added to a turnip stew, according to one of the oldest recipes known (if you want proof, it was written in stone). The ancient Hebrews scattered mint on the synagogue floor, so that each footstep produced a fresh aroma.
Samples of culinary uses of mint
As I mentioned, mint is found mainly in sweets, ice cream being a main example, but lets not forget mint sauce for lamb at Easter and of course, Kentucky’s wonderful contribution of the mint julep, or Tracey’s (Tangled Noodle) version of Blue Grass Ice Tea.
Europe and The Mediterranean
Zerrin of GiveRecipe offers up some incredible winners with Mercimek Corbasi (Red Lentil Soup) and Imambayildi – randomly called “The Priest (Iman) Has Fainted” because this dish is so good, I was near to swooning myself.
Pierre of Le Blog de Pierre Cuisine – a wonderland of creativity offers Chocolate Jelly, Orange Blossom Water Espuma and Mint Ice cubes
Morocco is famous of its mint tea which is de rigeur after a meal, of course other countries have similar teas as mint is thought to be a soother of an upset tummy.
In the Middle East, mint is often added to yogurt for the Kubbah or Kibbee (grilled meatball in sauces), or to the yougurt drink dugh.
India, Southeast Asia and Pacific Rim
In Indian cuisine mint is an important seasoning showing up in chutneys, curries and a host of other dishes. Let’s not forget raitas those satisfying combinations of yogurt, cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions with mint, parsley, mustard seed, and cumin.
According to Susie Ward in The Gourmet Atlas, mint is considered the chief herb of Mongul cuisine.
Thai food like Vietnamese uses mint combined with other (generally always fresh).
Mexico and Latin America
In Mexico, mint is the secret ingredient in Albondigas (meatball soup) or Chicken Soup with Mint: Caldo de Pollo con Hierbabuena.
I had to stop myself on adding all the recipes I found from around the globe that incorporated mint. It would have been far beyond what my feeble mind could have taken in.
Erica at My Columbian Recipes has this wonderfully refreshing idea for Zucchini Carpaccio
With good reason mint is called yerba buena (good herb) its versatility is limited only by our imaginations.