Taken on an ingredient-by-ingredient level, world cuisines are much the same in terms of components. The foundations of cuisines include sources of protein, carbohydrates both fresh and preserved, and produce. Although different areas include different mainstays due to regional differences, with, for example, coastal areas worldwide typically enjoying fish far more frequently than their inland counterparts, what truly sets types of world cuisines apart are the flavorful and aromatic ingredients found in their recipes.
One cuisine that features herbs in abundance is Greek cuisine. Greek statues and art feature historical depictions of the ancients’ appreciation for flavorful plants whether pungent or subtle. Statuesque heroes, athletes and musicians are crowned with leaves of the bay laurel plant, which was sacred to Apollo. Various other herbs have been valued throughout Greek history for their flavor and medicinal properties. Planning a garden with herbs typical to this cuisine will make it easier for cooks to prepare dishes with fresh, authentic tastes.
Probably the most well-known herb in Greek cooking is Greek oregano, or Rigani. The Greek variety of oregano, Origanum vulgare, is distinctively sweet and spicy. The aroma of the herb was said to be created by the goddess of love to bless newlywed couples – in antiquity, garlands of oregano crowned brides and grooms. It is also used with equal value, though less glamour for erosion control as it thrives in light and dry soils on hillsides. The herb can be used fresh or dried to add a pungent accent to meat, chicken, fish and cheeses. Oregano’s bold flavor is complimented well by lemon and olive oil, two other mainstays of Greek cooking. Many cooks sprinkle Greek oregano flakes over a Greek salad. Other common herbs popular in Greek cooking include basil, rosemary and thyme. Less well known herbs, however, contribute mightily to the essential Greek flavor.
Purslane, regarded as a pest to many gardeners, is much more highly appreciated by cooks preparing some Greek recipes. The hardy plant grows well in many places, and gardeners in cooler climates can extend their purslane season by growing it in a cold frame or greenhouse. Gardeners use the little succulent as living mulch in beds to retain moisture in the soil. The shallow roots offer little competition to more deeply rooted plants. Purslane was used in salad with basil, arugula (rocket), cress and garlic to ward off the common cold in the 17th century and its high Vitamin C content ensures that it wasn’t just a placebo effect. Purslane is also enjoyed sauteed as a side vegetable.
Savory, also known as Throubi, is not commonly seen at American supermarkets as a fresh herb. The fresh and bright flavor is versatile and the plant can help deter bean beetles in the garden. The plant is very similar in appearance to rosemary, although the herbs’ flavors and uses are quite different. Savory complements garbanzo beans and other lighter foods like fish, chicken, eggs and white cheeses. Garnish dishes with fresh savory leaves or use the herb to infuse vinegars for cooking, marinades and salad dressings.
Selino, also known as wild celery, cutting celery and Italian cutting celery, is often substituted by thick ribbed celery in American adaptations of Greek recipes, although the flavor is slightly different. Selino, however, is a plant that looks much more like parsley and was used like parsley by ancient Greek cooks. The thin stems and abundant leaves are commonly used in soups as well as raw in salads. The intense flavor of the plant means that far less is necessary when used instead of thick ribbed celery. Selino is so linked to Greek cooking that it is included in one of the great Greek national dishes, fasolada, which is a white bean soup.
Herbs that flavor the cuisines of various regions can be grown together and often compliment the other plants that are native or common in the same area. Including plantings representative of world foods is one way to enjoy the flavors of different countries with no need for a plane ticket or passport.
Amy Ambrosius is a frequent Garden & Greenhouse contributor.