Asian Herb Emboldens Dishes

February 10, 1991|By Waltrina Stovall | Waltrina Stovall,Universal Press Syndicate

Tom Spicer's relationship with his sister Susan hasn't changed much since they were kids. "She made the mud pies," he says. "I sourced the mud."

Today, Susan Spicer is a nationally known New Orleans chef. She formerly cooked at Maison de Ville Bistro and now has her own restaurant, Bayona.

Tom Spicer is a manager of Golden Circle Farms in Rice, Texas, which grows exotic baby lettuces and more than 100 fresh herbs for restaurants and specialty foods stores. When he comes pTC across a new product, he sends Susan a sample.

As the two youngest of seven children, Mr. Spicer says he and his sister were always close. Their father, a Navy captain from Georgia, met their mother, a native of Denmark, in South America, and the family lived all over the world while the children were growing up.

Mr. Spicer describes their mother as an excellent cook who incorporated many international influences into her dishes. She also loved gardening, a skill that runs in the family.

"My great-grandfather [Arthur Griffin] was brought over from Sweden by the Vanderbilt family to be the groundskeeper on their Rhode Island estate," says Mr. Spicer. "He was the first man to grow a melon in a greenhouse."

Mr. Spicer started out as a musician, playing with the Louisiana zydeco band of Zachary Richard, and then went into oil and gas lease brokering. When the oil patch dried up, he went to work at a friend's herb business in New Orleans. He was recruited by Golden Circle Farms in 1986.

At the time, the farm used hydroponics. Mr. Spicer changed it over to traditional organic farming and at the same time built greenhouses that cover more than an acre.

Part of his job is also "networking" -- finding farmers in other parts of the country to grow products out of season.

One of the herbs Mr. Spicer has been promoting to his sister and other chefs is kajang, an aquatic plant from Asia that has a pungent cuminlike flavor.

Kajang, pronounced ky-yang, is its Thai name. The Vietnamese call it ngo om or rau om. Because of its flavor, it sometimes is called "fresh cumin," but it is not the plant that cumin seeds come from, Mr. Spicer says.

He was introduced to the herb by a Vietnamese foreman at Golden Circle Farms. The foreman, who now works in California, also gave him the recipe for canh chua, or Vietnamese sour soup.

Mr. Spicer says kajang can be used in place of cumin. "I put it in my Texas chili recipe and call it yippee Thai kajang."

He suggests a little caution in making such substitutions, however. "Most of the time, you use twice as much of a fresh herb as a dry. With kajang, you might not want to be so bold."

At her New Orleans restaurant, Susan Spicer uses kajang in pesto and in a sauce for smoked venison quesadillas.

Kajang can be purchased at Thai and Vietnamese markets.

Canh chua (Vietnamese sour soup)

Serves four.

2 tablespoons cooking oil

1/4 onion, chopped

1 can chicken broth

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon tamarind soup base mix (see note)

1 pound catfish, trout or shrimp, cut into 1-inch pieces

5 okra pods, chopped

2 celery stalks, chopped

1 handful bean sprouts

1 medium tomato, chopped

5 sprigs kajang, chopped into 1-inch pieces

Place oil in heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and saute for 1 minute, then add chicken broth plus 1 can water, salt and tamarind soup base. Bring to a boil, add fish or shrimp and okra and cook about 5 minutes. Add celery, bean sprouts and tomato and cook 1 minute longer. Remove from heat and pour into bowl. Sprinkle with the chopped kajang and serve immediately.

Note: Packets of tamarind soup base mix can be purchased in Asian markets. Since the powdered mix contains monosodium glutamate, Tom Spicer suggests substituting a concentrate made from the beans, available in many specialty stores and gourmet departments. To make the concentrate, simmer 3 tamarind beans in about 1/2 inch water, adding water as needed to draw out all the tamarind flavor, then reduce to a few teaspoons of liquid. If desired, cook peeled shrimp in the tamarind liquid before it is reduced and reserve as a garnish for the soup.

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