THE ASIAN PENNYWORT — Gotu Kola — Centella Asiatic
I often noticed that whenever Ramasamy walked past the bed of Gotu Kola, he would pick a few leaves to chew.
At home in Malaysia, we had old Ramasamy, a frustrated gardener who had fled the rubber estates to work in my father’s orchid garden and managed to work miracles in our veggie and herb beds. In one of those beds, among the chilli and turmeric, we had some pretty green ground cover we knew only as Gotu Kola. As a teenager I knew that we used the leaves sometimes in salads and in a dish we called Nasi Ulam, a cold tossed rice salad that included a mixture of herbs, dressed with a lime juice, honey and chilli dressing.
I often noticed that whenever Ramasamy walked past the bed of Gotu Kola, he would pick a few leaves to chew. One afternoon I asked why he had chosen this herb instead of all the others in the beds he tended. I had earlier tried a leaf and found it bitter and peppery—certainly not something I would choose over the other herbs. His reply, spoken in Tamil, the language of South India, told me that it gave him more energy. I was not sure of what he really meant then, but assumed that it was his quirky preference for the leaf instead of the Indian betel leaf, that most Indians chewed.
Then father mentioned that Ramasamy had been suffering with severe arthritis for years and that one of the herbs in the garden was the only “cure” he had ever taken and it seemed to help him. I guessed that it was the fan shaped leaves, but I was puzzled. Ramasamy did not move as though he was in pain and his fingers were very nimble as I had seen him pulling some roots apart and dividing them with his fingers. I asked him about it. He just smiled and held out his hands. They were gnarled and misshapen, but when flexed, they were surprisingly agile.
That’s when I started asking our Sri Lankan friends about the herb. I knew it was a native of both India and Ceylon as the name “Gotu Kola” means “conical leaf” in Singhalese. What I found later from many other Asian sources including Vietnamese herbalists is that the Asian Pennywort is certainly one of the little known miracle herbs we have at our disposal. It is used both by Chinese herbalists and Indian Ayervedic herbalists as an anti-inflammatory. It is antibacterial and an anti-oxidant and is said to help digestion.
I have found that the leaves of the Pennywort have helped relieve the nagging pain that I find in my fingers and the muscles of my neck and shoulders at the end of a cooking stint that may take anything up to 6 hours in a commercial kitchen. It has also helped many friends with painful hips. I just chew the leaves whenever I water the pot plants on my balcony.
The leaves have been used as a stimulant for memory but I cannot vouch for that, as my keys and spectacles keep disappearing in spite of all the help from Gotu Kola. I know that the Vietnamese serve bai bua bak, a blended drink of Pennywort leaves sweetened with sugar syrup and ginger. It is green, viscous, and looks as if may have come from a Harry Potter potion, but in Cabramatta they swear that it purifies the blood. You will find it at any fresh fruit drink bar in a Vietnamese or Cambodian suburb in Sydney.
The Asian Pennywort is surprisingly resilient both on the ground or when confined to a pot.
Recipe to try
Cold rice Nasi Ulam
2 cups of cold, cooked rice
2 cups of a selection of four herbs chopped together
(use mint, coriander, parsley and Gotu Kola )
a teaspoon of fried shallot
Toss with a dressing of lime juice, honey and some seeded chilli slices. Add other edible herbs or flowers. Have fun with this!