Other Names: Bai sa ra nai or min indonesia (Thai); hakka (Japanese); hung gioi (Chinese); menta (Italian). Spearmint: Doublemint; dyosmos or menta (Greek); green mint or lamb mint (British); menthe anglaise (French); nana (Arabic, Hebrew); nane (Turkish); rau hung cay or rau hung lui (Vietnamese). Peppermint: Edelminze or pfefferminze (German); fefermints (Yiddish); hierba Buena or piperita (Spanish); menta piperita (Italian); menthe poivrée or sentebon (French); pepparmynta (Swedish); pereminde (Swahili).

General Description: Spearmint (Mentha spicata) has slightly ruffled, pointed, oval leaves with prominently serrated edges, deep green color, and cooling but not pungent flavor. Mint is found wild in central and southern Europe, but was probably first used in the kitchen in England, where it’s the country’s most important culinary herb, turning up in mint sauce for lamb, cold soups, and beverages. In the Middle East, spearmint is chopped and added in generous portions to salads such as tabbouleh. In Greece, dried spearmint is sprinkled over halloumi cheese and lends its coolness to tzatziki (cucumber and yogurt salad). All over western Asia, grilled lamb kebabs are seasoned with mint, and dried mint goes into the Georgian spice mixture khmeli-suneli. Spearmint oil lends its cool flavor to Bénédictine and crème de menthe liqueurs. Today, most spearmint is used in the chewing gum industry.

Peppermint (M. piperita_) is a natural hybrid of water mint (_M. aquatica) and spearmint, with smooth oval leaves, serrated edges, dark green color, and a potent peppery yet cooling flavor. Peppermint is cultivated in Europe and western and central Asia for the production of menthol, important in the pharmaceutical industry. Peppermint oil is used for candies and sweet liqueurs, where its cooling and fresh pungency balances the sweetness of sugar. Peppermint is an ideal complement for chocolate.

Curly mint (M. spicata crispa) is a type of spearmint prized for its decorative leaves. Orange, lemon, lime, and lavender mint (cultivars of M. citrate_), pineapple mint (M. suaveolens_), and complicated crosses like apple mint, chocolate mint, and ginger mint have fragrances that bear little similarity to mint and are often used for herbal teas. Bergamot mint, a variety of water mint, is used in Chartreuse liqueur. Wild mint (M. arvensis_) was used by Native American tribes for baking fish. The flowers of Japanese field mint (_M. arvensis piperascens) delicately scent tea, and sweet-smelling Chinese mint (M. arvensis ssp. haplocalyx_) also flavors tea. Large-leafed horse mint (_M. longifolia) is used in Indian chutneys and Afghan cooking, while mentuccia (English pennyroyal; M. pulegium) is essential to carciofi alla Romana (Roman-style marinated artichokes).

In Asia, mint is most important in Thailand and Vietnam. Thai varieties are milder than European peppermint and are always used fresh, usually combined with other herbs. In Vietnam, it’s particularly popular in the Hanoi noodle soup pho bo.

Season: For delicate flavor and attractive appearance, buy or cut mint early in spring, when the new shoots come up. Once mint has flowered, the leaves will become tough.

Purchase and Avoid: For really aromatic mint, buy it at farmers’ markets or grow it fresh. Much packaged mint sold in supermarkets is apple mint grown in hothouses and has softer, ruffled leaves and a light, innocuous aroma.

Serving Suggestions: Steep mint leaves with green tea and sweeten with sugar to make North African–style mint tea. Sprinkle crushed mint and olive oil onto fresh white cheese like ricotta or Greek halloumi. Serve roast lamb British-style, with mint sauce or mint jelly.

Food Affinities: Brandy, bulgur, chocolate, cucumber, dill, garlic, lamb, lemon, lime, olive oil, orange, parsley, ricotta, scallion, shallot, sugar, tea, tomato, yogurt.

from Quirk Books: