China South of the Clouds

Traveling and Cooking in China's Yunnan Province

In the Yunnan Kitchen: Fish Mint Root

September 11th, 2013

The heart-shaped herb known as “fish mint” may be best known to American cooks as a Vietnamese ingredient, but it’s actually eaten throughout Asia and is particularly popular in southwestern China, where it’s known as “fish-smell herb”(鱼腥草; “yúxīng cǎo”). (In the West it is also called lizard tail, chameleon plant, heartleaf, fishwort, and Bishop’s plant, according to wikipedia.) It’s particularly popular in Yunnan, and cooks there use not only the leaves but also the plant’s long, white, tangled roots.

While fish mint leaves have a distinctive fishy flavor, the roots are much more akin to a really strong cilantro. They are a bit astringent, and their flavor is dominated by the aromatic “soapy” quality that many people dislike in cilantro. In Yunnan, locals love that flavor. They use fish mint root to make simple stir-fries with a bit of chile and tomato; they eat it raw as a crunchy salad; and they add it to dishes like Dai lime chicken alongside other, more conventional herbs.

I have yet to find fish mint root for sale in any Asian markets in the U.S., but the herb grows here as an invasive weed, so it’s certainly possible to find if you go foraging in the right places. If you find it, remove the green leaves (reserving them to make a Chinese-style salad dressed with a bit of garlic, sesame oil, soy sauce, and fresh chile, or for use in a Vietnamese dish). Then wash the roots thoroughly and make sure to pick off all of the little brownish root hairs before using.

Photo: Georgia Freedman