Vietnamese Fragrant Vegetables
#Did you know?
At the Vietnamese table, raw fresh herbs are usually eaten as an accompaniment to food, a custom that distinguishes Vietnam from its Asian neighbours. Whole sprigs are arranged on platters heaped with soft lettuce leaves, cucumber slices, and other garnishes. You help yourself, pinching or tearing off individual leaves from stems and adding them to your bowl of food or incorporating them into hand rolls. This allows you to vary each morsel as you please. When herbs are used in cooking, they are generally added at the end to finish the flavouring of the dish.
The high consumption of herbs fulfils both practical and culinary purposes. The traditional Vietnamese diet relies mostly on a huge amount of rice, so herbs (as well as the fish sauce) are necessary to make that staple food more palatable. Herbs are also easily available and generally affordable. Many grow wild, thriving along the edges and banks of wet rice fields. Unlike the Western notion, if using herbs in small amounts to season food, the Vietnamese use them as greens. A single diner can easily consume two to three bunches of fresh herbs, picking the leaves off the sprigs as the meal progresses.
Fresh herbs not only contribute to the flavour of the cuisine but also deliver certain health benefits. Herb’s aids digestion and some are folk remedies for fever, headaches, and nausea. When you combine them with chillies, spices, and aromatics such as ginger, galangal, and turmeric, all of which boast their own health benefits, you have a potent phytochemical mix.
Viet herbs are collectively known as rau thơm, or “fragrant vegetable.” Although the formal name of many herbs begins with rau (vegetable), people mostly omit it in everyday speech.
When purchasing herbs, choose the freshest-looking sprigs you can, free of blemishes. Don’t wash them until you’re ready to use them. Store them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. (The Vietnamese like to blow air into the bags to prevent the herbs from getting bruised). Before using them, trim it to the desired length, then refresh by submerging the whole sprigs in cool water, soaking them for 30 minutes, draining, or spinning them dry in a salad spinner.
Since a herb may have several names in Vietnamese, we have included only the most popular ones in NamNam. While all these herbs may be found at the Vietnamese market, not everyone has that kind of easy access. Indeed, certain herbs pair particularly well with certain dishes, but don’t fret if you can’t get a particular herb. You can start off with fresh cilantro and mint leaves that garnish well with most food.
The list of herbs a long one and it is divided into Easy to Find – the most commonly used herbs, and Harder to Find – herbs definitely worth exploring if you come across them. Below are the few deserving ones to explore further, we have included phonetic pronunciations to aid in the shopping, as well as some gardening tips to encourage you to grow the herbs yourself, just as many Vietnamese do.
In Singapore, the best chances of getting some of these herbs are; Golden Mile Complex and Tekka Market.
Easy to Find
Coriander – Coriandrum sativum / Ngò (N-gaw)
An everyday herb in the Viet kitchen, coriander is used to garnish food, to add a bit bright flavour to a finished dish, and to round out the ubiquitous plate of lettuce and herbs eaten alongside many fried and grilled foods. Both the mature broad leaves and the tender tiny tops are eaten. Fresh coriander is easily purchased, and seeds and plants are also readily available. Coriander plants bolt (go to seed) quickly, so eat them up or regular pinch back the new growth.
Alternate names: Chinese parsley, cilantro, and mùi.
Medicinal: used for digestion problems including upset stomach, loss of appetite, hernia, nausea, diarrhoea, bowel spasms, and intestinal gas. It is also used to treat measles, haemorrhoids, toothaches, worms, and joint pain, as well as infections caused by bacteria and fungus.
Dill – Anethum graveolens / Thì là (Tee lah)
One of the few herbs not eaten raw in Vietnam, dill is added during cooking and to finish a dish. The feathery tops are chopped and mixed into a fine beef paste that is boiled and served as a cold cut and used in Hanoi-style grilled catfish with turmeric.
Alternate names: -Thìa là
Medicinal: Gastrointestinal disorders, Loss of appetite, Kidney disease, Cough, Fever and colds.
Mint – Mentha spicate, Mentha x.gracilis / Húng (Hoong), Húng Cay (Hoong cay)
Thank goodness mint is one of the primary herbs eaten in Vietnam because it is easy to grow and buy. The mint available here isn’t exactly the same variety as what you get in Vietnam, but the taste is basically the same. At overseas markets, you’ll find two mints, one called Húng (Mentha spicate), which is just like supermarket mint, and another called Húng Cay (Mentha x.gracilis), which has roundish leaves and red stems. Both have sweet spearmint qualities, but the latter often has a slight bite, hence its Vietnamese name, which means spicy mint. Most people enjoy milder Húng, but you can use either variety.
Alternate names:húng lủi, and húng láng
Medicinal: Used in tea as a treatment for stomach ache, colds and flu and promotes digestion
Sweet basil – Ocimum basilicum var. / húng quế (Hoong quay)
This is the basil commonly served with bowls of phở (beef noodle soup). It has a strong cinnamon and clove scent providing the perfect contrast to the richness of the beef broth. The literal translation of húng quế is “cinnamon mint,” but the herb is botanically basil. Siam Quun is a great variety to grow.
Alternate names: Anise basil, húng chó, and húng Thái
Medicinal: Antibacterial qualities, leaves are crushed to a paste to treat small cuts.
Vietnamese mint – Polygonum odoratum / Rau răm (Rau rahm).
A truly special Southeast Asian herb, Rau răm is heady and peppery, with hints of cilantro. It’s also traditionally enjoyed with Cơm Gà
(Vietnamese chicken rice). The hardy perennial tends to spread, so plant it in a pot and pinch it back to prevent the pinkish stems from becoming leggy. Propagate new plants by putting freshly cut stems into the water; when a fair number of roots have grown, put the stems in soil.
Alternate names: Vietnamese cilantro, Cambodian mint, hot mint, laksa leaf.
Medicinal: Used to treat indigestion, stomach aches, ulcers, wounds and swelling. Believed to have the ability to reduce fertility.
Harder to Find
Red perilla– Perilla frutescens / Tía tô (tee-ah toh)
This herb is one of the most unusual in the Viet culinary palette. Green on top and purple-garnet underneath, the leaves are beautiful, and the flavour, a mix of cinnamon, mint, and lemon, is a perfect finish for such bold foods as grilled lemongrass marinated beef. They are also eaten with sizzling crepes (Bánh xèo). In Vietnam, the leaves are sometimes purple on both sides. When growing this annual, let it flower and go to seed, saving the seeds or sprinkling them in the soil for the future. A close relative is Japanese hojiso.
Alternate names: Purple perilla, beefsteak, and shiso.
Medicinal uses: Used in tea for soothing properties and in steam baths for better skin
Saw coriander – Eryngium foetidum / ngò gai (N-gaw gai)
When the garnish plate for phở contains thorn-edged leaves of cilantro, you know you are being treated well. Stronger tasting and earthier than true cilantro, it is expensive because of its slow growth. Each leaf emanates from the centre of the plant, and there are no stems from which multiple leaves may flourish. A native of tropical America, it is used in Southeast Asian, Latin American, and Caribbean foods.
Alternate names: Saw coriander, Mexican coriander, saw-tooth herb, ketumbar java, and pak chi farang.
Medicinal: Used in tea to stimulate appetite, soothes stomach pain, improves digestion.
Fish mint – Houttuynia cordata / Diếp cá (Zeep Kah)
The spade-shaped leaves of this herb have a slightly sour, fishy flavour. Some people love the tanginess, while others are put off by the unusual taste. Best to enjoy it in mixed herbs plate with fried and grilled foods. Cuttings can be soaked in water to encourage root growth, then planted into soil. Spreads like a weed, so best grown in a container first.
Alternate names: Dấp cá, lá giáp, fish wort, Chinese lizard tail, and chameleon plant.
Medicinal: Treats stomach aches, indigestion and swellings. Leaves are crushed to a paste to cure insect bites, rashes and itching.
Rice paddy herb – Limnophila aromatica / Rau om (Rau awm)
The light taste of both citrus and cumin, this herb is typically used to canh chua finish (sour fish soup). It is native to Southeast Asia, where it flourishes in hot temperatures and grows most often in watery environments, particularly in flooded rice fields.
(Alternate names: Ngò om, rau ngổ thơm, rau ngổ, shui fu wong (Mandarin), seui Fa (Cantonese).
Medicinal: Antibacterial qualities
Vietnamese balm – Elsholtzia ciliata / Kinh giới (Kin zoy)
Vietnamese balm has unparalleled lemongrass-like quality. Speckled with purple on the backside, the delicate saw-edged, slightly fuzzy green leaves are tasty raw, great with grilled meats and salad. The plant is native to Asia. However, the exact extent of its original range is unclear. Today it is found through much of India, eastern Asia, and Europe. It grows throughout Nepal.
Alternate names: Húng Chanh.
Medicinal uses: Used in tea for soothing properties and in steam baths for better skin
Bitter herb -Bacopa Monnieri / Rau Dắng (rau dai)
It’s usually served alongside hot pots and used for soups, only added if diners crave a bit of bitterness in the broth. In other words, it shouldn’t be eaten raw and directly from the stem.
Medicinal uses: Treat fever, joint pains, & inflammations
Sour-Sop Creeper – Aganonerion Polymorphum / Lá giang (La ain)
A bushy shrub that grows to tall heights on trellis and poles. The foliage on this plant has a tart flavour and is often used in traditional Vietnamese soup (canh chua lá giang nấu cá). La Giang also goes great in the chicken version of the soup (canh chua gà lá giang), and hotpot.
It mainly grows in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Alternate names: River Leaf, Som Lom, Cá Kèo
Medicinal uses: Anti-oxidize, antibacterial substances, balance blood pressure, reduce fat intake. Use its juice as an antidote for cassava food poisoning.
Wild betel leaf – Piper sarmentosum / Lá lốt (Lah loht)
Shiny and wet looking on top but matte underneath, these heart-shaped leaves are dear because they are kind of pricy.In Vietnamese cuisine, it is grilled in bò nướng lá lốt, a typical Southern Vietnamese dish. Minced beef is marinated with seasoning, soya sauce and various finely chopped spices such as garlic, onion and lemongrass then wrapped in Piper lolot leaves and grilled, which brings smokey flavour to the beef.
The raw leaves have little fragrance, but when exposed to heat, they release an unusually sweet, spicy scent. Don’t confuse lá lốt with the thicker type of betel leaf that is wrapped around slaked lime and areca nut.
Alternate names: Pepper leaf, wild betel leaf, ye-thoei (Thai).
Medicinal: Juice of betel leaves with honey – serve as a good tonic.