I followed the link through from the monthly eGullet highlights email: of course I’d be interested in the thread on “shaky food history“. There, down near the bottom of the first page of discussion, was an intriguingly unfamiliar word, mentioned precisely because it was not easy to look up. The poster, sanscravat, wrote,

While researching an herb I’d heard of (butnege) I found only three references in print — all three were, word for word, identical. None contained any worthwhile info, and none cited their source. A letter from Paula Wolfert was the only thing that led to a decent answer (turned out that “butnege” was nothing more than dried mint — something that none of the printed sources seemed to know).

It’s true. Butnege is a little-used word. Google gives me four hits. Google books provides one. The ad-ridden Essortment page is only vaguely informative in writing that “Butnege is an uncommon spice not readily available in the U.S. It is a leafy green spice similar to basil or oregano in appearance, but it has a distinctive taste. ” The ad-free, if uninformative, page at IraqIran mentions it only in passing: “A dish that was developed among farmers is tishreeb fajilla, fava beans with oil and lemon juice, thickened with old bread and enhanced with the special Iraqi herb called butnege.”

Gary Allen, in The Herbalist in the Kitchen, is more decisively clear, defining it as Mentha aquatica, a specific variety of mint, and one which matches up with the eGullet poster’s conclusion. He says he learned this from the book, The Baghdad Kitchen, which recommends using any kind of mint if this particular kind cannot be gotten. So – case closed?

Surely, though, if this were the standard name for the herb, it would be more widely used. My hunch was that the lack of use of the word was due to the way it had been transliterated – from Persian, from Arabic, from whatever language it originally came from in Iraq. So I asked for help.

My friend Little Diamond (of A Diamond in Sunlight) did some investigating on my behalf and came to a different conclusion than had my previous few sources. The Arabic version is بطنج, transliteratable as butnege, but also as butnaj (34 Google hits) or butnij (49 Google hits). Its translation has clearly vexed a number of people. Consider this confused discussion over what it might be, wherein people confidently inform others that it’s thyme, sage, Saudi mint, or a blend of herbs. (Usefully, one commentator notes it’s definitely not peppermint.) In The Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens, the authors give more synonyms, in transliterated Arabic and in English, for which they propose “river mint”. “River mint” clearly cannot be the Australian plant by that name, and may indeed be Mentha aquatica for all I know, as proposed by the poster I began with.

In English, Little Diamond tells me, according to the online sources she could find, this plant is called betony. It’s an alternate name, in Arabic, for betuniqa. Etymologically and superficially, this makes sense: all these words have the b-t-n sequence, a commonality more meaningful in Arabic than in English, it is true, but still a compelling choice for possible origin and meaning.

Now being betony does not exclude it being mint, as betony is a member of the mint family. It does not taste at all the same, however. Betony is bitter and astringent.

In the English-speaking world, betony is infused as a headache cure, and used for historical recreation cooking, as it was a popular ingredient in the Early Modern and before. (See, for example, this sixteenth-century curative recipe or, from different source, Conserve of Betony.) Beer can also be made from it.

Intriguing though this search has been, I don’t know if I have solved anything or only made further confusion in a translation challenge which has clearly stumped other people with fewer food-related resources. Perhaps the original poster and other authors, such as Wolfert, a specialist in the food of eastern Mediterranean, are all correct, and Mentha aquatica is the necessary ingredient when butnege is called for; it is certainly far more their area of expertise than mine! Perhaps betony, another mint variant, is the necessary ingredient; it is what Little Diamond tells me it transliterates to in Arabic and, in terms of comprehensible etymology, it is the more satisfying solution of the two.

There must be thousands of people out there who just know the answer, from being relevantly bi-lingual cooks, but what are the odds they will ever go web-searching for this particular transliterated spelling variation and thus come to resolve my uncertainty?

*© S. Worthen 2009