Cheap Eats:
Arab Mint Tea

Most of us know the Greek myth about Persephone: abducted by Hades, mom Demeter caused crops to fail, Zeus said Persephone could go home if she hadn’t eaten anything, but she’d eaten six pomegranate seeds, so now we get winter, because Persephone has to spend half the year with Hades in the Underworld. But the story doesn’t end there. Persephone may not have loved the arrangement with Hades, but that didn’t keep her from being possessive. After all, she was now Queen of the Underworld. So when she caught Hades with a lovely nymph named Minthe, Persephone went ballistic, throwing Minthe to the ground and stomping on her. At some point in the process, the nymph was transformed into an herb that released a lovely fragrance each time the goddess stomped or kicked. And that, the Greeks once said, was how we got mint. Charming.

In keeping with the original stomping concept, creeping mint varieties have long been planted as ground cover—and were particularly popular as such during the Elizabethan era—precisely because walking on mint does, as Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “perfume the air most delightfully.”

Mint comes from a big family. Native to Europe, Asia, and Australia, and naturalized pretty much everywhere else that is temperate or subtropical, the Mentha genus has about 25 species, including peppermint, spearmint, oregano, marjoram, rosemary, thyme, and catnip. Of course, when we talk about mint in cooking, we are generally speaking of peppermint or spearmint. These are not the only “true” mints, but they are the only ones of significant commercial importance these days.

The mint known as pennyroyal was popular with the Greeks. The disciples of Bacchus thought that a wreath of pennyroyal worn on the head would dispel drunkenness—a belief that actually survived many centuries, as reflected by the notation in John Gerard’s 1597 book on herbs that “a garland of pennie-royal made and worn about the head is of great force against the swimming in the head, and the paines and giddiness thereof.”

Spearmint, also known as garden mint, is thought to be the oldest of all the mints, and may be the mint mentioned in the Bible. The most common mint in temperate climates is water mint. It is believed that peppermint is likely a cross between the lovely, sweet spearmint and the strong, bitter water mint.

There are other mints, such as apple mint, bergamot mint, and pineapple mint. These have more subtle flavors. They remain popular among gardeners and gourmets, but the delicacy of their flavors makes them less reliable in the marketplace. But whatever the variety or species, worldwide, mint is the most widely used of all aromatic herbs.

Mint was brought to the Americas early on, arriving with the first settlers, who planted it primarily for medicinal purposes. Mint soon spread and became naturalized throughout North America. In time, mint became a popular flavoring for homemade candy, and mint was being commercially cultivated in Massachusetts by the late 1790s. Growing mint became increasingly lucrative. In the mid-1800s, Hiram G. Hotchkiss of Lyons, New York, and A, M. Todd of Michigan, were known in their respective states as “Peppermint Kings.” New mint hybrids were developed that would grow in less desirable places, and the method of distilling spearmint and peppermint oils was refined.

The skyrocketing popularity of mint flavoring was an international phenomenon. In 1877, William Colgate introduced mint-flavored toothpaste. By the late 1800s, the “curiously strong” mint flavor of Altoids was settling stomachs in London. In 1907, William Wrigley, Jr., created spearmint chewing gum, adding mint extract to the chicle-based gum invented in the late 1800s by Thomas Adams. In 1912, Clarence Crane introduced mint candies called Lifesavers, named for their shape. By 1914, when Wrigley created Doublemint, he was the leading manufacturer of chewing gum in the U.S. In 1927, Austrian Edward Hass invented a new peppermint candy called PEZ. The term PEZ comes from the German word for peppermint, pfefferminz. (And here PEZ always seemed so all-American—must have been the Popeye dispenser.) World War II spread American candies and chewing gum around the world, creating an even bigger demand for mint flavoring. Today, peppermint is the number-one best-selling flavor among non-chocolate hard candies.

Of course, mint is not just for medicine or candy. It is an important culinary herb. In northern Europe, mint traditionally accompanies lamb, duck, and young vegetables. In the Middle East, it is mixed into yogurt and cooked with pulses. In India, mint appears in spiced dishes and chutneys. And in hot climates, most particularly across North Africa and into the warmer regions of western Asia, mint tea is consumed as a cooling beverage.

Mint hybridizes easily—which is why it is recommended that you plant cuttings rather than seeds, to be sure you get what you want. If you do grow your own mint, be advised that it is invasive, so it is wise to grow it in a pot or, in a garden, surround it with a submerged barrier, such as a bottomless bucket. When I was growing up, we used to grow mint (spearmint and pineapple mint) in an unpaved corner of our patio, far from the rest of the garden, and we were constantly pulling up sprouts that emerged between the flagstones. It really wants to spread.

This mint tea is popular in North Africa and the Middle East. Iced, it is very cooling. Hot, it is very soothing. Either way, it is very tasty. Enjoy.

Arab Mint Tea

36—40 fresh spearmint leaves

1 quart boiling water

4 tsp. green tea

Honey or sugar to taste

Put the mint in a teapot and crush the leaves slightly. Pour the boiling water over the mint leaves. Add the green tea. Allow it to steep for 5 minutes. Strain to remove leaves. Serve hot or cold, sweetened to taste (or not).

Serves 4.

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