Having to replenish my Vietnamese herb garden after the gopher attack a couple weeks ago, I visited my favorite Vietnamese market in San Jose, California, Thien Thanh (located on the corner of Keyes and Story Road). There's always a bunch of starters on sale at the door of market this time of year. A friendly store employee or two stays outside to keep an eye on customers and things happening in the tiny parking lot.
It was blazing hot and the shady overhang of the market entrance was a welcome respite from the heat, particularly when I see lush quart-size pots of tía tô (red perilla), kinh giới (Vietnamese balm), húng (mint), rau răm (Vietnamese coriander), and various kinds of ớt (chiles). A man and woman surrounded me and honed in on making a sale. I was looking for just a pot of kinh giới and a chile plant but walked away with unexpectedly more.
Every year for the past 5 years, I've tried growing ngò om (Limnophila aromatica) and was unsuccessful at getting the sweet tender stems of the citrusy, cumin-y herb to flourish. It never grew much and would just poop out, no matter how much watering and feeding I did. This year, I vowed not to get one. Using dried cumin, just like my mom taught me, was good enough for finishing my canh chua cá (Vietnamese sour fish soup with tamarind, pineapple, and okra). Many southern Viet cooks who love this herb also finish curries with it.
“That’s a great way to grow it,” he said, coyly smiling. The pot was full of mature rice paddy herb, and he advised me to take it home and put it in a larger pot so it would have room to grow. “Then, find a large plastic bag and put the entire plant in it. Poke a few holes to let air in, and the tie the bag up. You don’t have to water the plant.”
“No water at all?” I asked to double check. We’re being
asked to conserve water this year in northern
“No water,” he said, and the sale was made.
The clever method was essentially like making a tiny greenhouse for each pot. As the name suggests, rice paddy herb requires a lot of moisture and heat. In Vietnam’s humidity, particular in the southern region, this herb flourishes.
At home, I opened up the bag and followed his instructions to actually create 3 separate pots of plants to maximize my harvest. The stems fell apart easily for separation and I recycled the pots from the other plants I’d bought for these, filling them up with fresh potting soil. (These pots are the typical quart-size ones you’d find at nurseries. Use bigger pots and you’ll have to find extra large plastic bags!) The clusters of rice paddy herb went in and I gently patted the soil down to make sure they were securely in place.
It was a hot afternoon and I should have done this project in the shade, for after sitting in open air under the sun for just about 15 minutes, the delicate stems wilted. Bent over and looking glum, they didn’t look perky whatsoever. Great. My annual rice paddy herb disaster was manifesting in a new guise.
Plants, as I’ve found, are pretty resilient so I persevered and put them in their makeshift green house. I used different kinds of plastic bags to see what would happen -- clear plastic produce bags as well as the handled kind you get at checkout. I avoid bags that were completely opaque and those with too much colored lettering. My rationale was based on the large greenhouses I’ve seen on farms. They’re covered with translucent plastic.
Closing the top with rubber bands found in the kitchen, I set the pots aside in full sun. In about 30 minutes, they were all standing upright again. Shazam. Amazing.
Over the course of the next few days, I realized the leaves were getting a bit brown so I moved them into a partial shaded part of the patio. Thus far, they’re growing taller and are alive. As for watering? I haven’t added a single drop.