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Ngo Gai is a small, compact herb comprised of long and serrated, lanceolate-shaped leaves arranged in a rosette pattern around a central stem. The leaves grow from the plant’s base rather than the stem, averaging 25 to 30 centimeters in length and 4 to 5 centimeters in diameter, and are glossy, dark green, broad, and flat with small, toothed edges. Each tooth may contain a tiny yellow to green spine that is generally harmless, but older leaves may irritate the skin when harvested with bare hands. Seasonally, a flower stem also extends above the leaves and is covered in spikes and flowers. Ngo Gai has a strong, musky aroma reminiscent of the citrus, earthy, and herbal notes of cilantro. The scent is also sometimes likened to the smell of stinkbugs, a skunk-like, sweet, and grassy aroma. Ngo Gai has a robust, vegetal, herbaceous flavor with bitter, citrusy, tangy, and peppery nuances. When compared to cilantro, both herbs share a similar taste, but Ngo Gai has a much more robust and pungent flavor.
Ngo Gai is available year-round.
Ngo Gai, botanically classified as Eryngium foetidum, is an aromatic leafy herb belonging to the Apiaceae family. The low-growing plant is native to Central and South America and is known by many different names, including Culantro, Saw-Toothed mint, Long-Leafed coriander, Pak Chi Farang in Thai, Ketumbar in Malaysian, Chadron Benee, Fit Weed, Coulante, or Cilantro de Hoja Ancha, meaning “Wide-Leaf cilantro” in Spanish. Despite its American origins, Ngo Gai has become naturalized in Southeast Asia and is favored as a citrus-forward garnish for soups, stews, rice, and noodle dishes. Ngo Gai is the Vietnamese name for the herb, “Ngo” meaning “cilantro” and “Gai” meaning “thorn,” a descriptor for the leave’s spiny edges. Ngo Gai is often mislabeled and confused with cilantro, as the herbs share a similar aroma and belong to the same botanical family. Beyond these similarities, the plants are distinct species and are unrelated. Ngo Gai has a stronger, more robust flavor, and the leaves are hardy and can be cooked, unlike cilantro, which is too delicate and solely used as a finishing element. Ngo Gai is also a heat-tolerant plant, allowing it to thrive in tropical Asia, while cilantro is traditionally a cool-season herb.
Ngo Gai is a good source of vitamin C to strengthen the immune system while reducing inflammation and vitamin A to maintain healthy organ functioning. The leaves also provide calcium and phosphorus to protect bones and teeth, fiber to regulate the digestive tract, and other amounts of iron, riboflavin, and thiamin. In natural medicines, Ngo Gai leaves are steeped in hot water and are drunk as a soothing tea to reduce symptoms associated with colds, flu, and fevers. The leaves are also used to stimulate the digestive tract and increase bowel movements.
Ngo Gai has an intensely herbal, citrusy, and grassy flavoring well suited for fresh and lightly cooked preparations. The elongated leaves hold up against heat and are added towards the end of cooking as the heat helps to lessen their pungent taste. Ngo Gai is traditionally thinly sliced or torn and stirred into soups, stews, curries, and stir-fries. In Thailand, Ngo Gai is combined with green onions and cilantro and added to kui tio nuea, a traditional dish of beef and noodles. The leaves are also favored for adding refreshing notes to hot and sour fish soups, or they can be blended into marinades, sauces, and chutney. Ngo Gai can be used interchangeably with cilantro, but the leaves should be incorporated in smaller quantities as the flavor is more intense. In addition to Asian cuisine, Ngo Gai is popularly cooked into beans, used as a taco topping, or served in roasted meat dishes. Ngo Gai pairs well with meats such as poultry, beef, pork, and turkey, seafood including fish, shrimp, and scallops, other aromatics including garlic, ginger, chile peppers, shallots, and citrus, bell peppers, tomatoes, celery, and zucchini. Whole, unwashed Ngo Gai leaves can be wrapped in damp paper towels and stored in the refrigerator for up to one week. The leaves can also be dried or chopped, mixed with oil, and frozen for extended use.
In Vietnam, Ngo Gai is a common culinary ingredient and is often added as an herbal enhancement to soups, curries, and noodle dishes. One of the most popular dishes Ngo Gai is served alongside is pho. The savory noodle soup is a unique blend of cultural, culinary influences and has evolved over time into ever-changing comfort food. Experts trace the first versions of the soup to Northern Vietnam in villages surrounding the capital city of Hanoi in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During this time, the French occupied Vietnam and introduced tender slices of beef into culinary dishes. A noodle soup known as xao trau was a popular dish throughout Vietnam and was traditionally made with water buffalo, but as beef became more prevalent, the meat was substituted into the soup, creating pho. Chinese immigrants also established pho stalls and restaurants, blending Chinese culinary practices with a French and Vietnamese fusion. In 1954, pho was spread to Southern Vietnam, where fresh herbs were offered as fragrant toppings, and this type became the soup typically found worldwide today. Ngo Gai is lightly torn and stirred into the soup to add a refreshing, earthy, and herbal note and is served raw alongside bean sprouts, Thai basil, chiles, and lime wedges. In addition to pho, Ngo Gai is popularly served with banh xeo, a crispy pancake. Banh xeo is traditionally filled with savory meats and vegetables, and fresh herbs are stuffed into the folded pancake to add brightness, balancing salty, sour, spicy, and sweet flavors.
Ngo Gai is native to Mexico, the West Indies, and Central and South America and has been growing wild since ancient times. The herb thrives in sub-tropical and tropical climates and can be found naturally growing in forests, shaded cultivated soils, disturbed areas, or along pathways. Ngo Gai was eventually introduced to Asia through colonization and trading, where it became a favored substitute for cilantro, an herb native to the Mediterranean. Ngo Gai is used as a bright, herbal garnish throughout Asia and is prevalent in Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Malaysian cuisine. Today Ngo Gai is relatively unknown in the United States and Europe and is often overshadowed by cilantro. Despite the herb’s lack of global recognition, Ngo Gai has recently been growing in popularity and has become a favored summer home garden herb. Ngo Gai is sold fresh through Asian, Caribbean, and Latin markets, specialty distributors, and select farmer’s markets. The herb is also sold in seed form through online seed retailers for home garden cultivation.
Recipes that include Ngo Gai. One is easiest, three is harder.
|Sea Salt with Food||Spicy Chicken Lemongrass Banh Mi|
|Food Network||Saigon Crepes with Vietnamese Table Salad|
|Food dot com||Vietnamese Chicken Salad|
|Pham Fatale||Bun Bo Hue (Hue-Style Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup)|