Whether medicinal, ceremonial, or culinary, plants and herbs serve myriad purposes. They’ve been used for centuries to ease ailments and to ward off evil spirits—though these days they’re probably better known in the kitchen (the Plated kitchen, too!). From to basil to oregano, here’s a glimpse at a few essential herbs and the global cuisines that know them best.
If caprese salad is any indicator, fresh basil and Italian food make a great pair (you might even say they go mano in mano). Slightly sweet with just a hint of mint, basil adds herbal complexity to pastas and pizzas alike. Don’t forget the Chicken Parm, either. When it comes to Italian cooking, basil is used to flavor tomato sauces and vinegars—but it’s usually incorporated towards the end of the cooking process so it retains its freshness. Basil is also one of the main ingredients in pesto, giving it its signature, gloriously green hue. But it’s not just Italian food that showcases this tender herb—basil also shows up in Asian cuisine atop salad and alongside veggie and meat dishes.
Like basil, lavender is part of the mint family. The incredibly aromatic, purple-budded plant is native to the South of France and has been cultivated there for centuries. However, it wasn’t used in traditional French cooking until after the turn of the 20th century. These days, the French are known for their lavender syrup (hello, lavender pound cake), commonly made by extracting the essential oil from the plant’s dried buds. The syrup can be used to infuse baked goods (and honey!) with a bit of subtle, earthy sweetness. Fun fact: Though it’s often the dried buds and flowers that are used, the oft-ignored greens can be used to impart a flavor akin to rosemary. Use them in place of rosemary next time you make a savory bread!
Known to some as coriander, cilantro is actually the leaf of the coriander plant. It’s the plant’s seeds that are sold as coriander (the more you know!). A member of the carrot family, cilantro is all but essential in Mexican cooking—not to mention authentic, mash-tastic guac. The herb is an indispensable ingredient in signature Mexican eats like ceviche and pico de gallo—but it’s also a key component in Vietnamese dishes like spring rolls. It’s typically used fresh, and is added towards the end of the cooking process as it doesn’t do well in heat.
Parsley is native to the Mediterranean and has been cultivated there for over 2000 years. The herb’s botanical name, Petroselinum, comes from the Greek word for stone because it was first found growing on the rocky hillsides of Greece. The Ancient Greeks aren’t said to have used parsley in cooking, but it was a revered symbol of death and oblivion. These days, however, fresh parsley is a key ingredient in many a Middle Eastern eat, most notably tabouleh. Unlike cilantro and basil, parsley stands up well to heat.
Though oregano is often associated with Italian cuisine, it’s likely to have originated in Greece. The herb was embraced by the US after WWII, as GIs returned to the states with a newfound love of Italian food (particularly pizza). The Italians may have been responsible for introducing oregano to America, but many Mediterranean regions had been cooking with the plant for centuries before. In fact, the combination of aromatic oregano leaves, lemon juice, and olive oil is an foundational trifecta in Greek cuisine. And! Oregano is technically a flavor, not a particular herb, as there are several species belonging to different families that all impart the particular flavor known as “oregano.” Like lavender buds and flowers, oregano’s leaves tend to be more flavorful when dried.
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