A popular culinary herb belonging to the Lamiaceae family. There are many varieties of mint, due to the plant's ability to hybridise easily, but all mints have a common flavour element, which is a menthol like, herby freshness.
Mint as a savoury cooking herb is most closely associated with lamb, but it also partners fish and some poultry dishes as well. Vegetable dishes, particularly potatoes and carrots also benefit from the addition of mint. Of course, mint is also delicious when used in desserts, where its fresh flavour really shines through.
There are dozens of mint varieties, of which 3 are of interest to the cook
Mentha spicata, M. crispa, M. viridis is perhaps the most widely available mint variety. It has a distinct mint aroma and different varieties have slightly differently shaped leaves. Common spearmint has long slender mid-green leaves, while a variety we in Australia call garden mint has slightly rounder, crinkled leaves, growing on a ground hugging plant.
M. piperita officinalis have oval shaped leaves and an intense peppery heat. There are two varieties of peppermint; black peppermint has dark foliage, with purple stems, while white peppermint has paler leaves and green stems. The forthright menthol/pepper flavour of peppermint means it has little use in the savoury dishes, but has found much favour in confections such as chocolates and chewing gum, as well as the soothing peppermint tea.
M. rotundifolia has crinkled, variegated leaves that resemble garden mint, aside from a fine down that covers the leaves. Apart from a strong mint flavour, applemint, not surprisingly has a subtle appley flavour as well. This variety is also known as pineapplemint.
Other non-culinary varieties to look out for are eau-de-cologne mint, pennyroyal mint, cornmint, watermint, licorice mint, chocolate mint, basil mint and lemon mint.
The first recorded use of mint lies with the Greeks, which is not surprising as spearmint is native to the eastern Mediterranean. Minthe was a plaything of Hades, who inspired the jealous wrath of Persephone. Her punishment was to be turned into a lowly garden shrub, which is the mint we enjoy today.
Mint is a herb which must be enjoyed fresh, the dried version is but a pale imitation. The fresh herb should be relatively easy to obtain and it stores quite well. Simply chop off the lower part of the stems and immerse the whole bundle in a glass of water, place the glass in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
Apart from simply cooked with lamb, Middle Eastern, Indian and Asian cuisines all appreciate the fresh vitality of mint. Many Vietnamese and Thai dishes use mint as a central ingredient, especially in salads, where it is combined with coriander and other herbs to provide a zesty counterpoint to the fiery dressings used in those countries.