The difference between herbs and vegetables can be argued over, but generally herbs are something that enhances the flavour of food. The Vietnamese have a term for this “rau thom”. “Rau” refers to edible leafy vegetation, and “thơm” meaning aromatic or fragrant. Vietnam loves herbs. They’re used like condiments. It’s a big part of the reason why Vietnamese food is so good. Order a bowl of pho in Vietnam and it will surely come with a plate of greens. Never has a pile of leaves been so intimidating. Some you may recognize – cilantro/coriander, dill, lemongrass, and various forms of mint are popular in Vietnam – but for the unrecognizable ones, hopefully this will help you make the most out of the Vietnamese’s favourite flavour enhancers.
Identifying it: Small, narrow leaves that are darker than Italian basil, purple stems, will sometimes have purple white flowers. Smells like black licorice. Probably the most popular herb in Vietnam.
Taste: Slightly sweet. Anise taste.
Use: Tear off the leaves and eat them raw. They will almost always be served with pho amongst many other dishes. Place a pile of leaves in the soup and mix them in.
Identifying it: Narrow alternating leaves with thin stems.
Taste: Bitter, of course.
Use: Popular with hotpot (lậu) and for use in soups. Use only the leaves and taste as you add them to avoid over-bittering your food.
Identifying it: Also known as garlic chives, they are tubular and flatten off at the ends. They are similar looking to traditional chives.
Taste: Similar to traditional chives but with more of a garlic flavour.
Use: They often come cooked in soups or rolled into spring rolls. Some dishes will sprinkle chopped chives on dishes as a garnish.
Identifying it: A special kind of chrysanthemum that is edible. The alternately arranged leaves run along the thick stalk and finger out. They can be toothed or rounded.
Taste: A strong, bitter flavour.
Use: Cooked in soups and clay pot stews. Sometimes it will be given to you raw to add to your soup yourself.
Identifying it: Green heart shaped leaves and small white flowers. Slight fish smell.
Use: Served with grilled meats and fish soup, in herb noodle salads, and fresh spring rolls.
Identifying it: Stems are slender. Leaves are rounded with small ripples.
Taste: Grassy, cucumber-like.
Use: Eaten raw in salads or fresh spring rolls. Used in a drink called nuoc rau ma (pennywort juice) because of its many health benefits.
Identifying it: Slightly serrated leaves (not as serrated as spearmint) with a minor shine to them. Minty smell.
Taste: A strong mint flavour – like toothpaste or mint ice cream.
Use: Very popular. Served and eaten raw. Often rolled in spring rolls, served in salads. If your meal includes a plate full of greens, peppermint will probably be in there somewhere.
Identifying it: Stems are hollow, spongy, and have small hairs. Leaves have small serrations.
Taste: Lemon and dill
Use: Most often used in sour soups or served with hot pot.
Identifying it: Long narrow serrated leaves.
Taste: A stronger version of cilantro.
Use: As an accompaniment to pho or banh xeo (Pork and beansprout pancake). In sour soups.
Identifying it: Broad and wavy arrow-shaped leaves.
Taste: Sour, kiwi-like.
Use: Added fresh to salads, or with bánh xēo, soups, or spring rolls
Identifying it: Dark green leaves are an oblong shape with serrated edges. Flowers are pink/white and spikey.
Taste: Like mint, but milder than peppermint.
Use: Served and eaten raw. Rolled in spring rolls, served in salads. Your plate of greens will most likely have this or peppermint (or both).
Identifying it: Long, stalked, and serrated leaves that are 2-8.5 cm in length.
Taste: Combination of lemon and mint.
Use: Can be found on herb plates that accompany soups and meats.
Identifying it: Dark green with chestnut coloured spots. Smells and looks like mint.
Taste: A bit like mint, a bit like coriander, but spicier, and with a slight bitter lemony taste.
Use: Eaten in salads, fresh spring rolls, in soups, stews, and is often served with fertilized duck egg.
Identifying it: Bright green and glossy broad, heart-shaped leaves. Stalks are slightly transparent.
Taste: Slightly sweet, slightly bitter.
Use: Eaten raw in salads or cooked into beef dishes.
Identifying it: Leaves are green on top and purple underneath.
Taste: Strong earthy taste.
Use: Eaten with soups, salads, and grilled meats. Check your herb plate for the green and purple combination.
Identifying it: Wavy, shiny green leaves grow out of a thick stem.
Taste: Peppery, piquant flavor.
Use: Can be found on herb plates that go with soups, pancakes, or grilled meats.
Identifying it: Dark green, teardrop shaped leaves.
Taste: Peppery, bitter
Use: Most often used as a wrap for bò lá lốt (grilled beef wrapped in leaves). They're similiar to betel leaves, and often confused with them.