Pennywort Is Pho's Sludgy, Slimy Sidekick
While kale is the nutritious leafy green that's getting all the attention lately, pennywort leaves have been the go-to home-remedy in Vietnamese cuisine for centuries.
Photo via Flickr user avlxyz
Although it's used in Chinese medicine and served from India to Australia, the first place I stumbled upon pennywort was deep in the back of a Vietnamese restaurant menu. It's not uncommon for these menus to be sprawling Rolodexes of flavours and unknown delicacies.
The blended vegetable drink is often glazed over or ordered as part of a dare—unless you're one of the wise and knowledgeable cultured people who have been enjoying its supposed health properties for years. You see, for far cheaper a price than a Boathouse Farm smoothie or the inherent cost of flirting with the staff at the latest extortionist juice bar in your neighbourhood, you can reap the benefits that this herbal root has been providing for centuries.
Belonging to the carrot and dill family, pennywort (also known as nuoc ra mau and gotu kola) is native to Asian wetlands, and thrives in damp marshlands. When blended, it resembles the dark, sludgy green vomit from someone who just threw up the Pizza Hut salad bar. But like lots of other green beverages, you're drinking this to apologize to your body for mostly using it as a garbage can. The potent herb contains a number of buzz-worthy vitamins and minerals, including vitamins B, K, calcium, zinc, and magnesium. It won't go as far as remembering your parents' birthday for you, but it's supposed to improve memory and vitality. In one herbal legend, it is revered for virility: in 900 AD, the Sri Lankan King Aruna credited the herb for helping him satisfy all of his 50 wives.
After paying $3.25 to try the drink myself at Toronto's pho temple Pho Tien Thanh, I did not become any more polyamorous and maintained my usual prerogative of struggling to even satisfy myself on a daily basis.
"In the summer whether you were eating a lot of greasy food or feeling sick, you'd get pennywort. It was a drink, and it was medicine."
Like most things that are ridiculously good for you, you're not drinking them for the taste, and pennywort is no exception to this old adage. It tastes like green things do: green. There is a distinct sharpness to the leaves that makes it tastes like a cross between swiss chard and getting pushed into a weedy lake by someone's scumbag older brother. To contrast the biting flavour, sugar, stevia, honey, or lemon can be added when it's blended. In my case, I've been given stevia, which creates the feeling of ingesting a piece of seaweed that someone covered in sugar instead of salt. But remember, you don't make friends with salad, or salad drinks, and pennywort is an ally more than anything.
After dehydrating yourself with the daily intake of sodium that lies in the murky depths of a large bowl of pho, you almost owe it to your digestive tracts to throw some pennywort back like it's a bottle of Drano.
"When my mom had barbecues, instead of lemonade we would have pennywort," says Phil Nguyen, sous chef at Toronto's Grand Electric restaurant. He was raised on the stuff as his mother was from Ho Chi Minh City and his father from Huế. "It grows like mint; it grows so easily. My grandma and grandpa had a whole garden of it, but it was hard to drink as a kid because it's pretty bitter on it's own. So they would blend it with ice and sweetened condensed milk."
In its incarnations outside of the beverage, the pennywort leave is used for a dizzying amount of medicinal purposes, making it sound even more versatile than Advil. The fresh leaves have been used to treat hepatitis, eczema, and even dysentery, a familiar affliction for anyone who's ever had the run the 100-metre dash from bad bean sprouts.
"In the summer whether you were eating a lot of greasy food or feeling sick, you'd get pennywort," Nguyen says. "It was a drink, and it was medicine."
If you're preparing the drink yourself at home, be sure to use fresh leaves as they can spoil after two days, and don't be afraid to add some other boosters in there like apple or citrus so that your taste buds—and your bowels—can remain pals.
Pennywort's been doing its thing for years without the help of the PR blitz that kale received, and if at first sip it's flavour seems too harsh, just try and remind yourself that no one liked kale the first time they tried it. You can expect a thank you note from your body in the form of not feeling like your insides are a youth hostel. For some, life might be too short to drink pennywort, but another rumour says it can help that: the leaves grant longevity and Tai Chi Master Li Ching-Yuen's 256 years on earth are attributed to his daily use of it. That been said, he probably didn't drink Bloody Marys every Sunday either.