Ngo Gai is an herb with long, glossy green leaves that are serrated along the edges. The small ‘teeth’ produce a harmless yellow spike along the leaves, which can grow up to a foot in length and are at least two inches across. Ngo Gai grows like lettuce, the leaves growing in a whirled pattern around a central stem. Ngo Gai is a pungent herb, the smell not always appealing; its species name comes from the Latin word for stink or bad odor. The aroma is very much like that of the herb cilantro, which Ngo Gai is often confused for. The flavor itself is more intense than cilantro, but very similar. Ngo Gai has a green, earthy flavor with hints of citrus and a slightly bitter aftertaste. At its maturity, a long flower stem will develop from the main stem. The flower stem is multi-branched with spiky green flowers with a white center. Ngo Gai loses its flavor when the herb flowers, so it is often grown as an annual and harvested before the flower stem develops.
Ngo Gai is available year-round.
Ngo Gai (pronounced go-guy) is a leafy herb popular in Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian cuisine. It is botanically classified as Eryngium foetidum, and is in the same family as carrots, parsley and celery. Ngo Gai is often mislabeled and confused with cilantro, mainly for its extremely similar flavor profile. Adding to the confusion is the English word for the herb: culantro. The herb is sometimes referred to as Sawtooth coriander or Mexican coriander. In Malaysia it is known as Ketumbar Java, and in Thailand as Pak Chi Farang.
Ngo Gai is nutrient and mineral rich. The herb has been used for hundreds of years for its nutritional and medicinal properties. The herb itself contains vitamins C, A and B-complex, in addition to calcium, carotene, riboflavin and iron. Ngo Gai has been used an appetite stimulant and a digestive aid.
Ngo Gai has an intense flavor that stands up to cooking and to heat. It can be added to stir fry and noodle dishes. In Thailand, Ngo Gai is combined with green onions and cilantro and added to kui tio nuea, a traditional dish of beef and noodles. Ngo Gai can be used interchangeably with cilantro in many dishes; the flavor is much stronger so a smaller quantity is required. It is added during the cooking process to flavor soups, broths and stews, and it retains its bright green color. Ngo Gai is served raw alongside bean sprouts, Thai basil, Asian chilis, and lime wedges as the garnish accompanying pho served in restaurants in south Vietnam. The bitterness of the raw Ngo Gai is highlighted in pho, and the amount added to the dish can be controlled by the consumer. To preserve Ngo Gai, blend the chopped herb with olive or grapeseed oil and freeze the mixture for future use. Wrap unwashed Ngo Gai in plastic and keep in the refrigerator for up to a week.