Updated : 06/06/2012 11:17 GMT + 7
Mealtime in Vietnam is a tastebud awakening array of herbal enhancement that has opened my eyes to a whole new way of eating. Back home in the United States dried spices seem to be the norm, and I know I am guilty of using these less potent substitutes in many a recipe. Fresh herbs tend to run expensive with the more exotic ones quite difficult to find.
You can imagine my surprise when I moved to Vietnam and discovered that a generous basket of assorted greens is de rigeur with most every restaurant meal. Even the street markets overflow with piles of economically priced herbs awaiting their turn to perk up many a home cooked dish.
Since pho is practically the national food, I decided to use a steaming bowl of common chicken noodle soup as my gateway to some uncommon herbal exploration. I am sure many of you are just like me. You tear into bits and pieces of these leafy accompaniments without truly knowing what each is properly called by name.
After a recent breakfast at my favorite neighborhood pho parlor, I discreetly plucked some extra herbs from the plastic basket, wrapped them in a napkin, and shoved them into my pocket. Later that morning I carried my sample pack to work and asked a coworker to identify my now wilted cargo. She hesitated a few moments before sheepishly admitting she was not quite sure about two of four.
Have fresh herbs become such a standard part of Vietnamese cuisine that they are identified more by taste and sight than name? To be sure we easily recognize fresh dill, Thai basil, and cilantro as they are quite common in Western kitchens as well. Let’s venture deeper into that tableside herb basket to learn four of the more exotic offerings that abound.
Laced with a strong cumin undertone is rau om, or rice paddy herb. A soft fuzzy stalk much like a dandelion’s holds small round leaves ready for the taking. This herb also imparting a slight citrus taste is best paired with fish soups and phos.
Ngo gai is coriander or culantro (not to be confused with cilantro). Tearing its thick long leaves adds an element of bitterness mainly to beef phos. Unlike most other herbs with multiple leaves attached to a stem, culantro’s clusters of stalks emanate from a common base.
One of the prettier herbs gracing a Vietnamese table is purple perilla or tia to. Its taste is as bold as the large textured leaves purple on one side and dark green on the other. In addition to infusing phos with a slight mint flavor, tia to is a delicious wrap for banh tom shrimp fritters and bun cha grilled meat and noodles.
Last but not least is one herb you may distinctly remember by taste. Biting into heart shaped diep ca or fish mint delivers a slightly sour fish taste hard to forget. This unique herb perks up grilled meat dishes and fresh spring rolls with a strong taste best acquired over time.
If an herb can somehow be wrapped, stir fried, torn, or any other way added to a dish, chances are it will find its way to a Vietnamese table. Street market stands overflowing with these four herbs and more offer small bushels of these greens for as little as VND2,000 (US 10 cents) each. For such a huge gain in flavor, what a small price to pay.
A stand selling herbs and vegetables can be easily found in any Vietnamese market (Photo: JR)