Often invaded but never conquered, beautiful, dignified Vietnam has mastered the fine art of synthesis. Its culture, language and, best of all, its food reflect the multiple influences that have shaped the country, incorporating the best from elsewhere without sacrificing the heart and soul that make it uniquely Vietnam.
If you’re looking for a cuisine that is light, healthy and loaded with flavor, you need look no further than the handsome, artistic taste sensation known as Vietnamese cuisine.
The greatest attribute of this cuisine is in the way the flavors are layered. All the ingredients are very simple,” says Mai Pham, a Vietnamese restaurateur and author. “Nothing is over-composed or over-handled. The flavor is in the herbs.” Pham says the herbs are used in generous amounts, “Not in a chiffonade, not cut in small slivers, or sprinkled on at the last minute. They are served in the dish itself like a vegetable.”
Vietnamese cuisine has been influenced by neighboring countries such as China and Thailand as well as the Southeast Asian country’s former French rulers. Yet the food maintains its own character through a lightness and simplicity that rely on fresh herbs and nominal use of fat.
“Vietnamese cuisine is one of the healthiest in Southeast Asia,” says Toni Sakaguchi, a chef-instructor at The Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone campus in St. Helena, California. “Very light, minimal fat and lots of raw vegetables and herbs.”
Vietnamese foods are often wrapped in fresh herbs, and a large bowl of herbs is commonly used as a salad, according to Pham, whose latest book, Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table (Harper Collins, 2001), highlights several of these “wrapping herbs.”
“This is our green, or our vegetable,” Pham says. “A typical salad is some lettuce leaves, two or three herbs, cucumber and bean sprouts. It’s a really pretty food, very refreshing and on top of it, it gives you fresh flavors.”
Sakaguchi, who accompanied Pham on recent culinary tours of Vietnam, recalls, “When we were traveling in Vietnam, no matter where you were, at small street vendors or noodle shops, they always presented you with a large platter of greens, herbs and bean sprouts to eat with your food.”
In the late 1970s, a large migration of Vietnamese people came to North America. With them came an assortment of foods, including herbs, previously unfamiliar to most Westerners. As herbs such as lemongrass and Vietnamese coriander become more recognizable, cooks are learning to appreciate the pleasures they bring to the palate.
“The Asian herbs have a sweetness and fruitiness that are suited to heavier usage volume,” says Ric Orlando, chef-owner of New World Home Cooking Co. in Woodstock, New York. “I add handfuls of rau que (anise basil) and lemon balm to salads and salsas. The diner’s response is usually one of awe at the aromatic essence and earthy intensity of the food.”
Orlando, known for his innovations in American fusion cuisine, says Vietnamese fare is his favorite. He grows many of the herbs he uses in its preparation.
Herbs play an important role in hot Vietnamese foods, with much of the flavor added when the dishes are assembled and fresh herbs are added. “You don’t want to start with a base of very complicated broth or stock,” Pham says. “You need a very neutral background–a clear white canvas–so later you can taste [the herbs] better.”
The fresher the better, she adds. “The use of all these herbs has to be done at the very last minute. Do it right before you put [the dish] in front of the person.”
Pham, who is also the owner of Lemon Grass Restaurant in Sacramento, California, says, “The most wonderful thing about these herbs is that people perceive them differently, like wine. Wait until you pair different herbs.”
Not so long ago she had trouble finding the now relatively common herb lemongrass for her restaurant. Pham predicts that with the growing interest in Asian cuisine, it’s only a matter of time before a variety of Asian herbs are easily found all over North America. Most urban areas now have Asian food markets, and Asian herb plants and seeds are carried by at least several nurseries with online and mail-order services (see below for sources).
Many Asian herbs are tender perennials that can be grown in Western gardens without much difficulty. In areas with cold winters, pot them up so they can be brought inside. “Keep them fairly well-trimmed in winter so they don’t grow very leggy,” advises Robert Bathgate, a spokesman for Richters Herbs. “They can spend the summer out on the patio or in the garden.”
Pham advises experimenting with the herbs. “When you find these herbs, work with them,” she says. “Eat them raw. Cook with them. Remember they are probably some of the greatest gifts we can receive from cooks in Asia.”
Vietnamese Culinary Herbs
A number of herbs familiar to Western palates also are popular in Vietnamese kitchens, including lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), which is often used fresh in salads.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale), garlic Allium sativum), shallots and chile peppers add flavor to many dishes, along with spices such as star anise (Illicium verum), turmeric (Curcuma longa), peppercorns and sesame seeds.
Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) is widely used in Vietnamese cuisine. Also known as ngo or rau mui, the whole plants are sold at markets; the pounded roots as well as the leaves are used to flavor food. Other favorite herbs less known in the West include:
Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus). Also known as xa, lemongrass is a tender perennial used in Vietnamese cuisine as a marinade and to infuse broth and curry. Remove the tough outer layers before using; then finely slice, chop or pound the white interior portion just above the root.
“The whole stem, trimmed, washed thoroughly and bruised with the back of a knife, can be added to simmering curries and soup but must be removed before serving,” says Segundo Torres, an associate instructor at Johnson Wales University College of Culinary Arts in Providence, Rhode Island. Lemon rind can be used as a substitute if fresh lemongrass is not available, he adds.
“Lemongrass appears everywhere on my menu,” Orlando says. “One of my favorite combinations is with bitter beer and smoked chiles in a steam bath for mussels.”
Culantro (Eryngium foetidum). This is a tender perennial with a strong cilantro-like taste. Also known as saw-leaf, Mexican coriander, thorny coriander and ngo gai, it is used as a garnish in the famed pho bo, Vietnamese beef noodle soup, where the hot liquid softens this herb’s otherwise tough, serrated-edged leaves.
“You take a few leaves, tear them with your hands, smell it right there, and as you hold it over the bowl the steam comes up and embraces your face,” Pham says. Diners then drop the culantro into the soup, and “as the herb hits the hot water it wilts and perfumes the entire bowl.”
Fish mint (Houttuynia cordata) is a tender perennial with fish-shaped leaves and an unusual tart, oily taste. A highly aromatic herb, it’s used fresh in Vietnamese table salads as well as in soup and meat dishes. “I promise that when you eat this with something else, it grows on you,” Pham says. This herb is also known as rau diep ca or vap ca. A variegated form exists but is not used in food.
Rice paddy herb (Limnophila aromatica). Also known as ngo om or rau om, this herb has a sharp, refreshing citrus taste. A tender perennial, it is used fresh in hot and sour soup. “A little goes a long way,” advises Torres. Pham finds it also goes well with fatty foods and in tomato sauce.
Mint (Mentha ¥gracilis, or M. ¥gracilis ‘Madalene Hill’) is an essential part of Vietnamese cuisine and the favored variety, a tender perennial, has round leaves and a sour, refreshing taste. Mint is vital in table salad and as a wrapping for meat. Field mint (M. arvensis) may serve as a substitute.
Anise-scented basil (Ocimum basilicum) is also known as Asian basil, Thai basil and rau hung que. Some experts say there are significant differences between anise and Thai basil; others contend variations are caused by different growing conditions. This annual herb is traditionally served with pho bo and tucked into salad rolls.
“Anise basil is my absolute fave,” Orlando says. “It is great with mango, goat cheese, tomato, ricotta and any seafood, especially scallops. Aside from just flinging it around, we puree whole bunches with extra virgin olive oil and a pinch of salt to drizzle on mango and tomato slices.”
Holy basil (O. sanctum) is also known as sacred basil and rau que Thai. Considered an annual, its clove-scented, slightly fuzzy leaves are popular cooked in Southeast Asian stir-fries. “It’s not so desirable raw to my palate,” Pham comments.
Vietnamese coriander (Polygonum odoratum) is a tender perennial also known as rau ram that tastes like a cross between arugula, sorrel and cilantro. Add it to hot dishes at the end of cooking, as heat dissipates the flavor, Torres warns. An equal mixture of mint and cilantro can substitute if Vietnamese coriander isn’t available, he says.
Leslie Coons is a frequent contributor to The Herb Companion who lives, writes, gardens and cooks from her Red Hook, New York, home.