So many readers have expressed surprise over the availability western herbs that I use in some of my cooking. Others just lament the fact that finding the herbs is a needle in a haystack proposition. Frankly, it wasnâ€™t an easy process to get to the current state of affairs herb-wise. In 1996 there were precious few growers who offered fresh herbs to a wary and undemanding market. Gourmet Farms was perhaps the first reliable and consistent supplier of basics like basil and sometimes mint. I used to hit their table at the Greenbelt organic market in the mid to late 90â€™s. Other growers there started to experiment and soon vendors like Gil Carandang were offering dill, tarragon, Thai and Vietnamese herbs, etc. But reliability and supply was very erratic and weather driven. A few years later, several more farms in Tagaytay really got into the herb thing partially for more demanding chefs/restaurants and an ever more sophisticated retail market.
Farmers started to supply organic markets, specialty shops like Santis with Italian parsely, dill, oregano, chives, thyme (rarely), several types of basil, etc. A few years ago, I had a favorite table at the market in front of the Market!Market! mall today. My suki (gosh, his name escapes me) would always have a great selection of just picked herbs that were also packaged right (sometimes pre-washed, but mostly done for freshness). He always was generous with the weighing and I never felt shortchanged. That suki disappeared when the mall opened but the farmâ€™s herbs can still be occasionally found on Fridays and Saturdays at one of the stalls. However, a few weeks after they disappeared from Market!Market!, I ran into my suki by chance delivering and arranging herbs at the vegetable section of Rustanâ€™s Rockwell. That is a roundabout way of revealing where I now go for herbs at any time of the week. While I still like the markets and itâ€™s my first choice, Rustanâ€™s Rockwell has the best selection of herbs the rest of the week.
On a recent visit to the grocery, I bought several bags so I could take some pictures and show some of the readers what is available in the MIDDLE of the rainy season which normally means there isnâ€™t a western herb in sight! I brought home some great young coriander (wansoy) that I use in chilli crab, guacamole or Vietnamese/Thai soups. A second bag contained dill, also picked at the right time (not too big and grassy). There was also some Italian flat leaf parsley which I always get but frankly the local version is grassy compared to its cool weather raised relatives. There was also some fantastic mint with small leaves, great fragrance and barely crushed as well (normally transporting mint bruises it badly). Great french tarragon was in aother bag, leaves a bit big but nevertheless perfect for a bernaise sauce or tarragon vinegar if you want to make yours from scratch. Finally, medium size basil leaves smelled just terrific. There was also tarragon, curry leaf, curly parsley, oregano and several other herbsâ€¦
My other favorite source of herbs on Saturdays is Gil Carandang at the Salcedo market. He always has at least 20-25 different types of herbs and medicinal plants. I often have no clue what a third of his stuff is and recently he got me to try this new leafy herb/green he calls Malva which I think is an abbreviation of its scientific name. At any rate, I include a picture so you can see it (very unusual, first time I have seen it) and I can dexcribe the taste to you â€“ somewhat sour â€“ weird for a green but cool in a way. Indian readers please enlighten me about this unusual (for Manila) plant. Yup, Manila has come a long way indeed on the herb scene. And if the vendors donâ€™t have it, you can always grow it. In my tiny herb patches I have a huge kaffir or makrut lime (critical for thai dishes), lemongrass, oregano, basil, tarragon, galangal (Indonesian ginger like root), rosemary, thai basil, pandan, etc. I also included a photo of some thriving rosemary in a pot that I saw in Baguio but also thrives in Tagaytay, and surprisingly, near the sea in Batangas as well!