Vietnamese food is, in my opinion, one of the most exquisite cuisines in the world. Describing Vietnamese food would not be complete without talking about the herbs used. What makes Vietnamese food stand out is that it derives it’s flavor from vegetable and herbs rather than being fried in oil, making it fairly light but still savory. These herbs provide Vietnamese food with unique textures, flavors, scents, and overall freshness. Although many other ethnic cuisines utilize herbs, Vietnamese cuisine that is particularly most noted for it’s abundant and frequent use of unique & exotic herbs.
Generously accompanying almost every Vietnamese meal, these fresh herbal leaves and stems create a very unique and delectable layer of flavor to the already dynamic extravagance of Vietnamese cuisines. These raw herbal additives are torn, tossed, topped, wrapped and/or rolled into dishes ranging from soups, sandwiches, spring rolls, to even rice & noodle dishes. There are even a few herbs that are utilized for specialized taste soups, braises, and grilled dishes.
If you are eating a meal at a Vietnamese restaurant, it is almost guaranteed that there will be at least a small herb strip (cilantro or Ngo) placed elegantly on your dish or abundantly adorning the traditional herb and vegetable plate. The overall health benefits of these garden jewels make them that much more appealing to us outside the realms of the kitchen and dinner table.
Some herbs that are found garnishing Vietnamese dishes are also very common to other world cuisines and were readily available on North American soil long before the Vietnamese migration to America, such as basil, dill, and spearmint. However, for the more unique and exotic herbs (from a Western perspective) made their way to America and proliferated exponentially in ways that are not always clear. The common belief held by many Vietnamese families is that these more exclusive herbs were introduced to American soil when South East Asian immigrants, including the Vietnamese, fled their mother country and brought with them seeds or roots of herbs to the States. These may have been sent through the mail so over time, home gardens of Vietnamese individuals flourished with these plants. The origin of these exotic Vietnamese herbs now sold in grocery stores in Little Saigon may be dated back to the early 80s, when they were home picked from gardens.
There are a plethora of herbs found and used throughout Vietnam that are rare to find in Vietnamese grocery stores and not commonly used in American-influenced Vietnamese food. So, may your herbs interest heighten your discovery and curiosity into the world of Vietnamese Flavors.
Cover image from SteamyKitchen.com