Herbs(rau thơm) are a very significant part of Vietnamese cuisine. They are appreciated for their medicinal qualities as well as the diverse flavors and aromas they provide. Large quantities of herbs are typically serves at each Vietnamese meal. In Vietnamese culture, herbs are considered cooling, or yin, and help counter warming elements, or yang, for a balanced and satisfying meal.
Leafy vegetables are often known as rau in Vietnamese, though the word rau is often omitted when referring to most herbs; for example, rau tiá tô is usually just called tiá tô. The word thơm means fragrant or aromatic. Rau thơm is a general term for herbs.
Herbs are both easy to use and easy to grow. I recommend growing your own herbs for greater mindfulness and appreciation of your meal as well as convenience and freshness. Most herbs are eaten raw in salads or added as garnish.
Some of the most important herbs in Vietnamese cuisine are outlined below. Many have similar uses and can replace familiar herbs in a dish for a new twist. Many of these herbs can also be combined as rau sống to accompany just about any dish.
asian basil(rau quế)
Asian basil or Thai basil is fairly common and quite useful. It has green and/or purple stem and pointed leaves with a refreshing aroma. The Vietnamese name rau quế means cinnamon herb, and it is also referred to as rau húng quế, meaning cinnamon mint. These names hint at the flavor, which is reminiscent of cinnamon or licorice. It can be used raw for salad or garnish as well as cooked. (substitute spearmint or spicy mint)
spearmint(rau húng lũi)
Spearmint is often simply referred to as mint(rau húng), since it is the most typical and common variety. It is a very versatile herb known for its cooling taste. Spearmint is great in salads and other raw dishes. It also works well for balancing rich or zesty dishes. Mint is an impactful ingredient in long bean soob and mushroob laab.
spicy mint(rau húng cây)
Spicy mint has less of a cooling flavor than common mint varieties and is actually pretty mild. It can be used much like other varieties of mint, in salads and alongside rich foods. (substitute spearmint)
vietnamese balm(rau kinh giới)
Kinh giới is also known as cockscomb and green perilla. It has larger, soft green leaves and is quite similar to lemon balm and red perilla. Its flavor has significant lemongrass-like notes. Vietnamese balm pairs well with soups and other cooked dishes. (substitute red perilla or asian basil)
red perilla(rau tiá tô)
Tiá tô, sometimes also called shiso or purple perilla, has soft leaves, often green on top and magenta on bottom. The flavor is a bit like anise with slight lemon tones. It is useful for salads or for wrapping, and it’s also good in braised dishes, like braised eggplant. (substitute asian basil)
crab claw herb(rau càng cua)
This is a rare herb with shiny, rounded leaves and a spicy, tart flavor. Also known as pepper elder, it can accompany other herbs in salads or alongside cooked dishes.
fish mint(rau diếp cá)
Fish mint is a less common herb named for its strongly sour and “fishy” flavor. It is good in salads alongside grilled dishes. (substitute spearmint or spicy mint or asian basil)
vietnamese coriander(rau răm)
Rau răm, also called Vietnamese coriander, is a flavorful herb with thin, pointed leaves. Its flavor is lemony and spicy with some notes or coriander. Rau ram leaves are good raw in salads and as soup garnish. (substitute coriander or asian basil)
Coriander is also commonly known as cilantro. This is another very versatile herb. The seeds, roots, stems, and leaves can all be used, sometimes interchangably. Coriander has a mildly spicy yet refreshing flavor. It is great as a garnish for a wide variety of dishes, and the root and stem are sometimes added to pastes and sauces. Coriander is an important part of this steamed plantain recipe.
sawtooth herb(ngò gai)
Sawtooth herb, also known as culantro or saw-leaf herb, has long leaves with serrated edges. Its flavor is refreshing and spicy, somewhat like coriander. Sawtooth herb makes a great garnish for soup or porridge, such as mushroom babar. (substitute coriander)
rice paddy herb(ngổ ôm)
This herb has long, edible stems and little oval leaves and grows well in wet areas like rice paddies. Its scent is a bit like cumin when chopped. Rice paddy herb is often used in steamed dishes or added to soups. Try ngổ ôm in this bamboo shoot mok recipe. (substitute coriander stem)
Unlike most other herbs, dill is not usually eaten raw in Vietnam. Dill has soft needle-like leaves. It has a strong flavor reminiscent of fennel. While it is only used in some regions of Vietnam, particularly in Northern Vietnam, it usually features in steamed dishes. (substitute asian basil)
wild betel leaf(lá lốt)
While lá lốt is not exactly an herb, it is used in much the same way as herbs in Vietnamese cuisine. The large, smooth leaves are very mild with a trace of peppery flavor. It is most often used for wraps and salads. Try lá lốt in this miang recipe.