It’s All About the Herbs

Published July 27, 2015 in Episode 14

Vietnamese cuisine is renowned for its use of fresh herbs. While many countries in Asia also use plenty of herbs and spices, the Vietnamese’ use of fresh herbs is unique. Depending on the dish, herbs are used to wrap or roll your food in, dipped into sauces, or immersed into a soup to infuse your broth. These herbs also have medicinal qualities, an extra bonus for the health-conscious.

  Herbs are an essential part of Vietnamese cuisine and add flavor and texture to the dish. (Photo: Loa)

Herbs are an essential part of Vietnamese cuisine and add flavor and texture to the dish. (Photo: Loa)

Growing up, my mom always put me in charge of washing the vegetables so I got to know all of the herbs we use in Vietnamese cooking. Here is my list of the most unique but commonly used herbs in Vietnamese cuisine that you should know.

1. Rau răm or Vietnamese coriander.

These herbs are spear-shaped and have a peppery flavor. It’s a must in chicken salad, gỏi gà, commonly eaten raw with most dishes and usually accompany balut egg, or hột vịt lộn. An added bonus? Rau răm can be used to treat indigestion, stomach aches and ulcers, wounds and swellings.

2. Ngò gai, or sawtooth herb, thorny coriander, or culantro.

A distinguished characteristic of the sawtooth herb is the thick thorn edged leaves. Don't worry, the thorns won’t hurt you but your wallet might take a hit. These herbs are very difficult to grow and therefore they are more expensive than other herbs. Flavorwise, it has a stronger taste than cilantro and is typically used as a garnish in phở soup. You can also tear up the leaves to put in your tea to stimulate your appetite.

3. Rau diếp cá, dấp cá, or fish mint.

As the name suggests, this herb tastes...well, fishy. Personally, this is my least favorite herb. But some people love rau dấp cá's sour, tangy, fishy notes, and its heart-shaped leaves. Fish mint usually goes well with boldly flavored grilled meats, fish and noodle soups. If you grind the leaves to paste, you can apply it to minor insect bites or rashes.

4. Tía tô or purple perilla.

Purple perilla is my favorite herb of all time. Its cousin is known as shiso leave for the sushi lovers. It is commonly eaten raw with grilled meat dishes such as bún chả Hà Nội, crepes or bánh xèo, and soups. It's purple on one side, green on the other side. And it has a bold, earthy, musky flavor, like a combination of mint and basil. Try adding a few leaves to your tea next time for a soothing, calming effect.

5. Rau ngò ôm, rau ôm, or rice paddy herb.

This herb has a citrusy and mild cumin flavor and is mostly used in canh chua, or Vietnamese sweet and sour fish soup. As the name suggests, it is grown abundantly in rice paddies and can take up a lot of moisture. Rice paddy herb is typically not found outside of Vietnamese markets. So if you live far away from a Vietnamese market and really crave canh chua, you can substitute with a pinch of cumin.

An honorable mention is Vietnamese balm or rau kinh giới. The delicate saw-edged leaves of this herb has a very unique flavor -  citrusy with notes of lemon and lemongrass. When eaten raw with grilled meat dishes, Vietnamese balm instantly enhances the flavor of the dish by giving it a bit of a zing factor.

There you have it, the essential herbs commonly found in Vietnamese cuisine. The Vietnamese people were way ahead of the build-your-own food trend! Next time you're at a Vietnamese restaurant, try these herb-heavy dishes and choose your own adventure with the herbs!

  • Bún Chả Hà Nội

Hà Nội-style vermicelli with grilled pork patties and pork belly. This  traditional northern style dish comes with a full plate of herbs: purple perilla, Vietnamese balm, Vietnamese coriander, mint, basil, green lettuce, cilantro, pickled carrots and daikon. Be prepared for an explosion of flavors and freshness!

  • Bún bò Hu

A popular noodle soup from Huế, a city in central Việt Nam associated with the cooking style of the former royal court. Bún bò is commonly served with diced green onions, chopped Vietnamese coriander and cilantro, raw sliced onions, thinly sliced banana blossom, mint, purple perilla, and sometimes mung bean sprouts.

  • Phở
  A bowl of phở with a side of Thai basil. (Photo: David Leo Veksler. CC BY-SA 2.0)

A bowl of phở with a side of Thai basil. (Photo: David Leo Veksler. CC BY-SA 2.0)

This ubiquitous beef noodle soup originated from the North and typically comes with a plate full of mung bean sprouts, Thai basil, and sawtooth herb. Pile them up in your bowl!

  • Gỏi cuốn

Every region in Việt Nam has its own version of spring roll. But no matter where you go, it’s the same wrapping and rolling process. Typical greens used in spring rolls include green lettuce, mint, garlic chives, cilantro, and cucumber.

  • Bún cá Châu Đốc

The fish soup from  the Châu Đốc region of Southwestern Việt Nam is  distinct in the color of the broth - yellow from the use of turmeric root and lemongrass. Bún cá Châu Đốc comes with a heaping serving of fish mint, spearmint, shredded banana blossoms, chinese watercress, and Egyptian pea blossoms!

Don’t forget to head over to Loa’s Facebook page to let us know which herb-dish combo is your favorite.