This herb tastes and smells like fish; it has recognised health benefits

In terms of appearance, fish mint belies its name. With beautiful white flowers and broad, heart-shaped leaves, the herb does not really remind one of fish. However, as one examines the plant closely, the distinct fish-like smell and taste of the leaves clarify the unusual name. Another name for fish mint or Houttuynia cordata is the chameleon plant–the reason for this being the herb’s membership of the Saururaceae or lizard-tail family of plants.

Not much is known about the origin of this herb, but it is believed to be a native of Southeast Asia. It grows easily in moist soils and is resistant to flooding.

The plant has two distinct flavors, according to the second edition of the Handbook of Herbs and Spices published in 2012. The Chinese variety, which is common in China and Vietnam, has a strong coriander-like aroma, and its roots are used more as a vegetable.

The Japanese variety, distributed from Nepal to Japan, has a lemon- or ginger-like aroma, and its leaves are used more in salads and fish recipes. The herb’s strong aromas and fish-like taste may be the cause of it not being as popular as mint or coriander.

But in India, fish mint is used across the northeastern states, where people know the herb by different names. In Meghalaya, it is called ja mardoh and is used in salads or cooked with vegetables. In Manipur, where it is called toning-look, its leaves and roots are used for garnishing bomba, a delicacy made of boiled vegetables and fermented fish, and singer, a salad.

The medicinal properties and benefits of fish mint have been documented in ancient texts of traditional Chinese and Japanese medicine, as well as in Ayurveda and Siddha schools of medicine.

In Assam, where fish mint is called Sundari, the tangy leaves are believed to be rich in vitamins and are added to fish curry and warm broths to alleviate symptoms of jaundice, pneumonia, or simple stomach infections, says Rhinusmita Kakoty Lahkar, a journalist based in Guwahati. The roots, although not consumed as much as the leaves, are used to prepare salads and chutneys to be relished with rice, she says.

Good for lungs

In recent years, modern medicine has validated many of the traditional benefits of fish mint. In traditional Chinese medicine, the herb is used to treat asthma because it has anti-allergic and anti-inflammatory properties.

In a 2003 study, researchers tested whether fish mint could help relieve asthma symptoms in cell models. They found that the addition of an essential oil extracted from the plant to the cell models mitigated asthma development and prevented airway narrowing.

The findings, published in the journal Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy, suggest the plant is a potential alternative treatment choice that may reduce the severity of the lung disease.

In another study published in the journal Molecules in 2022, scientists from China said that while the part of the plant above the soil has more spice components and good antioxidant capacity, suitable for the extraction of edible flavors, the most important medicinal components are concentrated in the underground stem and roots, which have anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antiviral effects.

Recently, in May 2023, researchers from Taiwan probed the benefits of the herb on mice. The mice were first treated with drugs to increase body temperature and then fed the aqueous extract of the plant.

Analysis of their tissues and organs showed that the plant extract suppresses the impact of fever on the heart, liver, respiratory system, and kidney. Maximum benefit was observed in the upper respiratory tract, says the paper published online in the Journal of Ethno-pharmacology.

In Japan, a decoction of the herb’s dried leaves is often consumed as a healthy herbal tea. This practice is said to control dental biofilms that cause infectious oral conditions, including dental caries, periodontal disease, and oral candidiasis.

Researchers reported in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 2017 that the tea extract exerts moderate antimicrobial effects against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and other oral microorganisms.

The tea also exhibited anti-plaque formation activity and prevented periodontal disease. The authors suggest that tea, which is easily prepared, can be made a part of people’s regular diet as an effective method for preventing infectious oral diseases.

The plant has also been found to keep at bay symptoms of COVID-19, such as pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome. In an article published in Food Bioscience in December 2022, researchers from Assam say that the plant should be explored as a potential nutraceutical agent for the therapy of viruses such as SARS-CoV-2, HIV, herpes simplex, and influenza.

Other health benefits of fish mint include its ability to reduce body weight, epididymal fat, insulin resistance, plasma, and liver lipids. The leaves of the plant have also become a popular ingredient of cosmetics such as serums for acne-prone irritated skin. All in all, including fish mint in your diet will have several benefits.

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