Friday, January 27, 2012


This week was Chinese New Year, so Happy New Year!
In my first year in Ottawa (2003), I did a placement for my Master's degree with a community-based research project.  I worked with the only paid staff on the project, a woman named "Dung" (pronounced Zoong).  Dung and I shared a love for food (don't we all?).  I introduced her to dim sum on Somerset Street and she introduced me to pho on the same street.  We went regularly, weekly even, alternating between chinese and vietnamese cuisine.  When my placement ended, my love for pho flavours continued.

Last week I decided to make Red Lentil and Coconut Soup from The Earthbound Cook.  I went to the chinese grocery store and picked out some lemon grass and star anise.  Fresh basil was also on my list, except I couldn't find it anywhere in Green Fresh Supermarket - was I silly to think fresh basil would be sold at a chinese grocer?  I spotted a package of leaves on stems in a styrofoam tray, covered in plastic.  I don't know what got me thinking it could be basil.  The label said "Fragran leaves."  I asked a woman beside me, also handling the fresh herbs, "Is this basil?"  She must have thought I was so strange. 

"No," she replied, "It's fragran."

Of course it was fragran, she thought, it says so right on the package.

But she didn't stop there.  Her eyes sparkled, like she was having fun, like she was an herb connoisseur, "It's for vietnamese dishes.  You put it in vietnamese soup.  It makes it very very nice."

I double checked with her, "You're sure it's not basil?"  Why was I being so weird? 

"Yes, it's not basil.  It's very good in soup.  But don't cook it.  Put it on fresh." 

Oh yes, that's what I like about pho.  The freshness.  I bought the fragran leaves and decided to omit the basil. 

When I served the soup, I set out some fragran stems on a plate, like in vietnamese restaurants.  We broke up the leaves with our fingers and sprinkled them on the soup.  Ben usually makes fun of my substitutes but this time, when he tasted the soup, he commented on how the random leaves suited the flavours.  Score.  The soup was delicious, by the way.

The strange thing is, I can't find anything anywhere about "fragran leaves."  They must go by a different name.  Still at the back of my mind I suspect they might be basil. 

Here's the recipe (and sadly, no photos to show for my leaves or soup... oopsies, gotta learn... I'll make it again and post beautiful photos):

Red Lentil and Coconut Soup

2 Tbsp olive oil
2 cups diced yellow onion
1 Tbsp grated peeled fresh ginger
1 lemongrass stalk, trimmed and freshly minced
1 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground star anise
1/2 tsp ground coriander
4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
3 1/2 cups veggie stock
1 cup red lentils, rinced
1/2 small jalapeno or serrano chile, finely minced (optional)
1 cup coconut milk, preferably light
3 Tbsp chopped fresh basil (this is where I used the mystery leaves)
2 Tbsp fresh lime juice
salt, to taste

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat.  Add the onion and cook until soft and translucent, 5 to 8 minutes.  Stir in the ginger, lemongrass, cumin, star anise, coriander, and garlic.  Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture is fragrant, about 2 minutes.

Add the veggie stock, lentils, and chile.  Cover the pan and bring to the start of a simmer.  Reduce heat to medium low and simmer until lentils are tender, about 15 to 20 minutes.

Transfer the mixture to a food processor and puree until it's smooth. 

Place a fine-mesh sieve over a clean saucepan and strain the soup into it (we have a colander like this that I used).  Discard the solids.

Reheat the soup over medium heat, and add the coconut milk.  Just before serving, stir in the basil and lime juice and season with salt to taste.

- Mary Mary

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