Houttuynia Cordata: The Fish Herb

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Houttuynia cordata is native to different parts of Asia, including China and Vietnam. It gets its botanical name from the name Houttuyn after Dutch naturalist Martin Houttuyn. The cordata part of the name comes from the Latin word for heart. The first Westerner to describe Houttuynia cordata was the Swedish naturalist Carl Peter Thunberg who wrote about it in his 1784 book Flora Japonica.

Other names for the herb include the Vietnamese diep ca, the Chinese zhe ergen (or zhe’ergen) and yuxingcao and the English fish mint. Other common English names include bishop’s weed, heartleaf and chameleon plant. In Japan, Houttuynia cordata’s name translates to the poison-blocking herb. Ancient Japanese people used Houttuynia cordata to counteract the effects of poisoning, which was more of a common practice during early Japanese wars than it is in the modern world.

In most places, Houttuynia cordata is foraged rather than cultivated.

Houttuynia cordata flavor profile

Houttuynia cordata’s flavor profile is an unusual one for an herb. It is often described as having a fishy characteristic, which explains the fish mint name. There are two varieties: Japanese and Chinese. Japanese Houttuynia cordata has notes of citrus, and there is a significant cilantro character to the Chinese type. Both kinds of Houttuynia cordata have a little pepperiness.

The fishy flavor lacks the broad appeal of sweeter herbs, which is why Houttuynia cordata is not as popular as basil and other herbs in the mint family. Even in places like Sichuan (where it is relatively popular), the fishy aspect makes it a controversial herb. The roots are edible as well and can have a flavor that is similar to that of galangal but minus the heat.

Health benefits of houttuynia cordata

There are multiple compounds in Houttuynia cordata that provide its many health benefits. They include:

  • Flavonoids: Houttuynia cordata contains flavonoids like rutin and quercetin. The flavonoids are responsible for the plant’s anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Terpenes: The terpenes in Houttuynia cordata include limonene and pinene.
  • Potassium: The leaves of Houttuynia cordata are rich in potassium salts. The salts cause the body to excrete sodium, making the herb an effective diuretic.

Houttuynia cordata is traditionally used to treat a variety of diseases and health conditions, including:

  • Indigestion: Nepalese people use Houttuynia cordata as an indigestion treatment.
  • Respiratory Tract infections: Houttuynia cordata is used in traditional Chinese medicine as a treatment for bronchitis and similar ailments.

Common uses

In parts of India, Houttuynia cordata is cooked with vegetables or served raw in salads. The roots are sometimes ground and used along with chile peppers and tamarind in chutneys. Vietnamese cooks use it in grilled meat dishes and noodle salads; it also shows up in goi cuon, a Vietnamese dish featuring stir-fried beef.

Because of how pungent it is, cooks use it in tiny amounts. The leaves are eaten in China’s Sichuan province while people from Guizhou eat the roots. In China, the herb often gets served along with chile peppers and soy sauce. One of the popular Japanese applications for Houttuynia cordata is tea, which is usually made with dried leaves.

If you don’t like the smell, some experts recommend simmering the tea instead of steeping it. Simmering seems to decrease the intensity of the fishy notes. In Japan, the herb is often served deep-fried tempura-style to lessen the fishiness.