New flavours are difficult to discover nowadays.
As soon as something novel and exotic appears on a TV cookery show or in a glossy food magazine its on a supermarket shelf and being used in everything from fusion tacos to dessert.
A flavour that has eluded me since I first tasted it is Chadon Beni.
Let me give you the background.
Port of Spain. Trinidad. 2014. It was the week after the queen had visited and I was staying in the same hotel. Overlooking the savannah and the botanical gardens the hotel had just opened. It is now the Brix but it may have been under a different name back then.
Serendipity played her role. In that idle time between hotel check out and travel to the airport I decided to grab a bite to eat, more out of boredom than hunger.
The menu featured chick pea soup with Chadon Beni. It caught my eye. I’d enjoyed delicious food in the preceding days. Trinidad has an amazing and unique cuisine. It’s a cuisine of history and rich with the cultural heritage of the island. The Indian, South American and African flavours come together in doubles, roti, and chokas. These are street foods that zing with Indian flavours but present themselves as a reinvention. Reminders of their origins but definitely individual and definitely Trinidadian. [for any foodie adventurers Trinidad is a treasure trove – go get some Bake n Shark at Maracas Bay].
Back to the chickpea soup. It was a pretty simple affair. Nothing fancy. Chickpeas cooked to the point of fragmentation, a bit of sweetness and starch from some sweet potato and a touch of earthy cumin. But the shine out was from a new flavour. It stunned me. It was outside the glossary of flavours my tastebuds had stored up.
Green and herbaceous, but with a perfume that was low and deep. It definitely wasn’t coriander but it did have that pungency. I enquired about it. “What is this flavour?”
Chadon Beni was the obvious but unhelpful response.
It’s a Trini herb I was informed.
“Does it have another name?”
The waitress shrugged her shoulders and took away the now empty bowl.
In the taxi to the airport I wrote down the name whilst the flavour was still whizzing around my brain.
Back home I decided to recreate this soup. I had all the ingredients except Chadon Beni. I searched around my usual haunts. Indian stores and African green grocers. Nothing no one new what I was talking about. Even in Caribbean stores I was told it wasn’t available in the UK.
I searched my books to no avail.
The internet informed me that Chadon Beni, or Culantro is a herb used in the Caribbean, particularly Trinidad and Tobago. I chase culantro as a lead but usually ended up with Cilantro. I started to get suspicious that even my spellchecker was keeping it a secret from me.
I ordered seeds which never grew and eventually got to the point of realising that my only hope of tasting it again was back in Trinidad.
Having given up all hope I was in the Chinese supermarket and in the corner of my eye i caught a glimpse of some long green leaves with a serrated, sawtooth edge.
Labelled simply “stinking” on the label my heart raced with excitement. It looked like pictures I had seen. I recognised it and my extremely poor latin remembered the proper name Eryngium foetidum, hinted at bad smelling. Maybe thats where the name stinking comes from?
I grabbed two packs and whizzed home.
What I had bought was Thai parsley, also known as Stinking. Further searches took me to Long coriander, sawtooth coriander, ngo gai, bhandhania, Mexican coriander, Culantro and …Chadon Beni!
The flavour is not dissimilar to coriander but it is different. It is stated that Culantro is 7-10 time more pungent that coriander/cilantro. I don’t know how you measure that but for me the flavour is unique.
I don’t think pungent is the correct word as a lot of the flavour is subtle. It is almost a background flavour. The bassline of a tune rather than the solo. With chickpeas and other spices it seems to be a flavour enhancer, making the other flavours pronounced.
A good example Of this is the simple Trinidad green seasoning. Garlic, thyme, parsley, green onion, scotch bonnet chilli, salt and lime juice. A supercharged salsa verde that when added to a chickpea curry makes it sing.
I had to attempt to recreate the chick pea soup I had originally tasted.
Trying to keep things simple I added a few handfuls of soaked chickpeas with a chopped sweet potato to a chopped onion, garlic and ginger gently sautéed in the InstantPot. Covered in water and gave it 30 minutes.
Stirred in a tablespoon of coconut cream, a spoon of red curry paste and a teaspoon of dry pan warmed cumin.
Served it hot with a big dollop of green seasoning.
It was there. The synapses fired again with a taste memory as fresh as the soup I tasted that day. I hope that its a regular feature now in the Chinese supermarket. If not I at least I now know what I am looking even if it remains an elusive but magical herb.