On weekends the sidewalk outside the Pratunum Market in North Hollywood turns into an exotic Asian garden. Herbs with names like pak chee , horapha and bai kaprao are lined up for sale there along with vegetables, aromatic plants and even flowers that Southeast Asians use in cooking.
The plants are grown by Prasert Tassananchalee, a Thai nurseryman who lives nearby. Retired from a shipping company in Bangkok, Tassananchalee is a natural at growing things. He learned the art from his parents, who raised the fruits rambutan and durian commercially, but he never worked in the business.
Now Tassananchalee devotes himself full time to plants. Occasionally he brings them to market himself, but most weekends his daughter, Kim Ragasa, handles sales. The strip mall where they set up their display is a gathering spot for Asian shoppers. Along with the market, there's a Thai restaurant and some outdoor food vendors. Wat Thai, the Thai Buddhist temple and cultural center, is across the street.
These are warm-weather plants, so sales continue into November, then shut down until March. Some are annuals and don't survive the winter. Others may need protection from frost.
Summer plants include three Thai basils-- horapha , a strongly anise-flavored herb with a red stem; lemony tasting maenglak basil and Thai holy basil, or bai kaprao ( bai means leaf). Saranae , or mint, is often used in Thai restaurants here as a substitute for the basils.
Pak chee is better known under another name--cilantro. However, there is also pak chee farang , or "foreign" pak chee , which has slim, serrated green leaves that faintly resemble baby lettuce. Its flavor is stronger than ordinary cilantro.
Plants with no English equivalent include cha-om , which grows tall and has fern-like leaves. Thais eat the feathery young shoots, which have an aftertaste that vaguely resembles cabbage or Brussels sprouts. Gatin has a similarly shaped leaf, but a different flavor. It's eaten with nam prik kapi , a strong-tasting dip made with shrimp paste. Mayum , a tiny fruit, goes into somtam , which is a shredded green papaya salad, or is eaten with a dip of sugar, salt and chile. Tom loong , a vine, requires plenty of water and can't take severe cold. The leaves are added to soup.
Thai curries would lose their fragrance without kaffir lime leaves and lemon grass, and Tassananchalee raises both. Kaffir lime trees grown from seed may take 10 years or more to bear fruit, he says, but a grafted tree will produce limes after one year. Only the peel of the knobby kaffir lime is used in cooking.
Tassananchalee sells tiny, incendiary Thai chile plants and two kinds of eggplants: One is the size of a large pea or small marble ( makhua phuang ); the other is golfball-sized ( makhua pro ). Both are used in curries, and the larger eggplant is eaten raw, with spicy dips and other dishes.
Thai markets carry little bottles of jasmine flavoring, but the old custom is to obtain the flavoring directly from the flowers. That makes Tassananchalee's vines both ornamental and useful in the kitchen. Single blossoms are preferred for scenting water for cooking purposes, but Tassananchalee also has plants that bear double-layered and multiple-layered flowers.
The plants are on sale Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. outside the Pratunum Market, 8236 Coldwater Canyon Ave . The address is near the corner of Coldwater and Roscoe Boulevard.
Here are some other local sources for unusual herb plants:
Heard's Country Gardens, 14391 Edwards St., Westminster, Calif. 92683. (714) 894-2444.
Plant Sale at Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens, first Thursday of every month. Major sales on Nov. 4-6 and the third Sunday in May. 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, Calif., 91108. (818) 405-2160.
Papaya Tree Nursery, 12422 El Oro Way, Granada Hills, Calif. 91344. (818) 363-3680.
Sassafras, 275 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, Calif. 90290. (310) 455-1933.
Sego Nursery, 12116 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood, Calif. 91607. (818) 763-5711.
Taylor's Herb Gardens, 1535 Lone Oak Road, Vista, Calif., 92084. (619) 727-3485. Catalogue $1.
Vista Verde, Second Street and Arizona Avenue, every Wednesday Santa Monica Farmer's Market. (909) 926-2993.
These companies sell many herb seeds by mail order:
Cook's Garden, P.O. Box 535, Londonderry, Vt. 05148. (802) 824-3400. Catalogue $1.
Glasshouse Works Greenhouses, Church Street, P.O. Box 97, Stewart, Ohio 45778. (614) 662-2142. Catalogue $1.50.
Logee's Greenhouses, 141 North St., Danielson, Conn. 06239. (203) 774-8038. Catalogue $3.
Shepherd's Garden Seeds, 30 Irene St., Torrington, Conn. 06790. (408) 335-6910. Catalogue $1.