One of my high school chemistry teachers would always say, “Never refuse a breath mint.” This piece of advice alluded to the fact that you may be receiving a hint to bad breath in your offer of that mint. But there are a few other reasons why mint is something you should definitely not refuse when offered.
A cup of fresh mint tea might be one of the best things in the world. I usually boil water, pour it over some fresh leaves, let a steep a few minutes, and voilà! Pure, simple perfection.
The Moroccans take mint tea to the next level, however. The first time I experienced this beautiful beverage was when staying with a French women while traveling in Europe. As she walked me through the process of making it, I remember feeling seduced by the ritual of preparation. It was as if my enjoyment of the tea was also being steeped and strengthened in the process.
While writing about it won’t do the experience justice, the general protocol to making Moroccan mint tea begins by first preparing green tea, which is steeped only briefly and the water discarded to remove the bitterness. The green tea is then re-steeped with mint leaves and lots of sugar. The end result is a concoction that, I swear, serves as a some magical portal to a frequency of living far more divine than any cup of Tetley can evoke.
In Morocco, mint tea is served at all times of the day and after meals. It is considered far more than a beverage. It is a ceremonial act and a symbol of hospitality and friendship, which brings me to reason number one on why we should not refuse mint:
In some cultures, refusing a cup of mint tea is considered rude.
I have yet to travel to Morocco, but what I’ve learned from people who’ve travelled there frequently is that the most important currency you need is not money; it is time. If you want to say, buy a rug, you don’t just walk into a shop and barter a price. You enter their space. You sit and share a glass of mint tea. You talk with the seller and after an hour or so, you negotiate price. Just as making the tea has a ritual, so too does purchasing a good.
Mint as a symbol of hospitality can be linked back to Greek mythology. History has it that the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes were walking through a village disguised as poor travellers. Ignored by most villagers, an old couple eventually took them in offering them food and shelter. When preparing dinner, the couple cleaned the surface of the table with mint to freshen it. The gods rewarded the couple for their generous hospitality by turning their humble home into a grandiose temple, and from this point forward mint was considered a symbol of hospitality.
Including mint before or after a meal is not just a hospitable act. While there are several varieties of mint out there, the two categories most commonly known are peppermint and spearmint. Typically speaking, peppermint is primarily grown for its essential oils and spearmint is primarily grown for culinary use. When it comes to eating, however:
Both spearmint and peppermint help your body digest food.
Got cramps? Feeling sick? Is your lunch not sitting quite right? Have some mint. By stimulating the release of bile which promotes gastric secretions, both spearmint and mint aid your digestion. Mint also has antispasmodic effects that relax the action of muscles in our digestive tract and help calm an upset stomach, nausea, gas and cramping. For these reasons, mint has been shown to be an effective treatment for irritable bowl syndrome.
And all this time I thought an after-dinner mint was to freshen your breath.
Peppermint, while often thought of as a candy, gum or toothpaste flavouring, has a number of medicinal qualities. Beyond the digestion-related aids mentioned above, peppermint oil has also been shown to have pain-relieving properties for joints, muscles and headaches when applied topically. Inhaling peppermint oil can also relieve decongestion.
This makes me think back to childhood when my mom would slather VapoRub on my chest and back when I had a cold. VapoRub contains menthol. Menthol occurs in commercial quantities in only two plant species; both of which are types of peppermint. What’s ‘cool’ about menthol is that it triggers our body to respond in the exact same way that it does to cold temperatures. Peppermint doesn’t just feel cold; it is cold.
Peppermint oil can take away more than your aches and pains. It is also a natural insect and rodent repellent.
The smell of peppermint on your clothes sure would beat the stench of regular bug spray. If you’ve got rodent problems, try places a little peppermint oil on a cotton ball and placing it in the hole where they are entering your home. Wiping peppermint oil over cupboard surfaces with a damp cloth is also said to repel cockroaches and ants.
While all these uses are fantastic, a word of caution on using peppermint oil: if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, suffer from gastrointestinal reflux or kidney stones, its best to limit your use of this essential oil. Young children and infants should also not consume great amounts of mint as it can stimulate a choking sensation in little ones.
With a milder flavour than peppermint, which is a bit strong for in cooking, spearmint is your go-to mint in the kitchen. You’re likely familiar with mint jelly for lamb and all kinds of minty desserts, especially those with fruits. And, of course, there is the simple pleasure of mint tea.
But here are a few other ideas on how to enjoy mint in cooking:
Try sprinkling it on carrots or new potatoes. Add some mint to your split-pea soup rather than salt. While I have never been a huge fan of eggplant, the Sicilian way of marinating grilled eggplant in mint, olive oil and capers totally won me over. Mint also pairs well with a lot of other herbs, including: parsley, thyme, marjoram, sage, oregano, coriander, chilli, cardamon and basil.
As for growing mint in your garden, well… this is one situation where you may want to refuse it.
If you’ve ever tried to grow mint, you may have discovered its invasive tendency, quickly spreading over large areas. For this reason, mint is best grown in pots. This has to do with the way the plant propagates by stolons in its root system. In fact, you cannot grow peppermint from seed because it is sterile hybrid of two other types of mint. Therefore, growing peppermint is restricted to propagation by stolons.
The invasive tendency of mint also has ‘roots’ in ancient Greek history. It is said that Minthe was a nymph that Pluto fell in love with. Persephone, his wife, grew crazy with jealousy and turned Minthe into a lowly plant; Minthe, now Mentha, later became the genus name for mint.
Could this explain why we say someone goes “green with envy”?
Minthe, however, got her revenge. She became an indispensable herb and a very prosperous grower. With over 600 known varieties, the choice of mints are most definitely in ‘mint’ supply.
If you don’t have any exciting plans this weekend, don’t get green with envy towards those that do. Treat yourself to some fresh mint at the grocery and get calm, hospitable and friendly with the perfect cup of tea instead.
Do you have a use for mint you love? I’d love to hear about it.
Sources: The Encyclopedia of Herbs by Author O. Tucker and Thomas Debaggio, Herbs of Choice by Barro E. Tyler, Reader’s Digest: The Complete Illustrated Book of Herbs, Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs