One of the things that make Vietnamese cuisine so unique and special are Vietnamese herbs. If you don’t know anything about local herbs, you might be surprised or even overwhelmed by the number of fresh herbs served with different dishes but don’t worry; that’s why we wrote this article. After spending a significant amount of time in Vietnam and exploring hundreds of local markets around the country, we’ve learned a lot about local herbs and in this article, we’ll share our knowledge about the fresh herbs used in Vietnamese cuisine. In other words, you’ll learn how Vietnamese herbs look like, how is their flavor like, and what are they used for.
Rau Răm and Ngò Gai(Vietnamese Coriander Herbs)
We grouped these two Vietnamese herbs together because they’re quite similar but we’ll tell you how to distinguish them.
Rau Răm is the herb that’s usually referred to as ‘Vietnamese coriander’. The Vietnamese coriander looks nothing like its Chinese counterpart and instead has long, pointy leaves with round edges. Its taste is a mix of bitter and hot flavor which is why a lot of locals also call it “hot mint”. Rau Răm is used in a lot of different stir-fries, ramen noodles, soups, salads, chicken-based dishes, and local seafood dishes. This herb contains natural anti-inflammatory properties and also helps in treating stomach aches and indigestion.
Ngò Gai or Culantro (not to be confused with cilantro) is another similar herb with a slightly different appearance. Ngò Gai is long with sharp leaves that resemble canine teeth. That’s why Ngò Gai is also known as ‘sawtooth herb’. It tastes a lot like Chinese coriander but its flavor is a lot stronger. This herb is used mostly for fish-based dishes or alongside pho soup and it’s quite famous in neighboring countries like Laos and its capital Vientiane.
Xa Lach Son (Watercress)
Xa Lach Son is the Vietnamese version of garden crass but its leaves are slightly bigger, thicker and rounder. This herb is mostly used in soups and salads, but in different parts of Vietnam, people also use it in steamed dishes, stir fry it with some sesame oil or just pour it in soya sauce and use it as a side dish. What makes this Vietnamese herb so unique is the fact that its stem is also edible and it’s a favorite among Vietnamese farmers because its harvest lasts throughout the year and its price is always relatively high.
Ngò Ôm (Rice Paddy Herb)
Ngò Ôm is one of the most distinctive Vietnamese herbs. Its flavor is difficult to describe but if I have to describe it, I’d say it’s a mix of lime and cumin. You can identify this plant by the small hairs on the mushy, hollow stem. This herb is one of the most important parts of the traditional Vietnamese dinner table. It’s placed in the middle of the dinner table to be added to practically any dish at one’s own discretion.
La Giang (Sour soup creeper)
This herb can be easily spotted near rivers and channels across Vietnam. The plant has a very distinguishing appearance with its big spade-shaped green leaves. It’s used in a myriad of different Vietnamese dishes that include chicken or beef and salad, but it’s most widely used in soups and hotpot to add some sour taste, hence the herb’s nickname- ‘sour soup creeper’. It’s widely believed that this herb also has medicinal properties and a lot of locals use it as an antidote for cassava and food poisoning because of its high level of antioxidants and antibacterial substances.
Tiá Tô (Vietnamese Perilla)
Perilla is one of my favorite Vietnamese herbs. It looks like a Vietnamese balm with large leaves with serrated edges and a distinguishing purple color. This herb has a very subtle taste which is why it can be used in almost anything. However, in Vietnamese cuisine, it’s mostly used in bún chả (grilled pork and noodles), bánh xèo (a Vietnamese pancake), and Vietnamese spring rolls.
Cang Cua (Pepper Elder)
Cang Cua is one of the easiest-to-grow plants you’ll find in Vietnam. It requires very little care and can grow in different climates but it thrives in more humid places. The plant has heart-shaped leaves and bright green color. At the end of the stem, you’ll see a bitter bud that needs to be removed before eating or using cang cua for cooking. The flavor is sour and sweet but its texture is crispy, making it a great fit for an array of fish-based and pork-based dishes.
Húng Cây (Peppermint)
This is the mint we get in different kinds of candy around the world. The original flavor of the herb is minty and spicy, hence the English name- ‘peppermint’. Húng Cây has bright green leaves with pointy edges and if you can’t identify it from the plant’s appearance, you’ll certainly be able to identify it based on its distinguishing smell. In Vietnamese cuisine, this herb is used in fresh spring rolls, different kinds of salad, and for cooking pork and shrimps.
Húng Lủi (Spearmint)
Húng Lủi is a more mild version of its cousin Húng Cây (peppermint). This is the kind of mint people use in their drinks or to give flavor to lamb-based dishes. The appearance is also slightly different with spearmint having darker, rounder leaves. In Vietnamese cuisine, they are used for the same purpose as the peppermint.
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Thi La (Dill)
Dill is the Vietnamese substitute for cumin. This herb has a sweet and aromatic taste that makes it a perfect fit for a lot of seafood dishes. Additionally, the seeds are also used for pickling vegetables and even for sweetening cakes. The leaves might be very tiny but this herb makes a big difference in taste when it comes to cooking.
Diếp Cá (Fish Mint)
Diếp Cá is probably one of the stranger Vietnamese herbs. Its nickname (‘fish mint’) is rather descriptive because this herb has a minty flavor with a ‘fishy’ smell. So, if you’re trying it for the first time, this might put you off, unless you already have an acquired taste. The plant has leaves with shiny tops that have the shape of a heart. Because of its specific smell, this herb isn’t used in a lot of dishes but some of the standard choices include bò lá lốt (beef in lolot leaves), bánh xèo (Vietnamese pancake), and Cao Lau noodles.
Tần Ô (Crown Daisy Chrysanthemum)
Tần Ô is an edible leaf with a very strong, bitter flavor. This herb is used mostly in Vietnamese soups or stews as a raw garnish. However, if you plan to try it, be careful, using too much of it might leave a bitter taste in your mouth. Tần Ô is also famous for its medicinal properties because its leaves are rich in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and potassium.
Kinh Giới (Vietnamese Balm)
Vietnamese spring rolls wouldn’t be the same without the sweet and sour flavor of Kinh Giới. This herb looks like a large mint plant with rounded leaves and even though it tastes like lemon, you can get a hint of mint. Some other uses of Kinh Giới in Vietnamese cuisine include serving it alongside bún chả and in a lot of pork dishes, as its antioxidants help balance the fatty pork with its very light citrus flavor.
Rau Chua (Sorrel)
Rau Chua, better known as Sorrel in the Western world is a herb with broad, arrow-shaped leaves. The herb can be found in Southeast Asia and parts of Europe. It has a sour-sweet taste, similar to kiwis and is a go-to choice for many Vietnamese salads and used as a garnish for a lot of stews and soups.
Húng Quế (Thai Basil)
Not to be confused with sweet Italian basil used to flavor tomato sauces, the Thai basil is different not only in appearance but also in taste. Thai basil has narrow and pointy leaves and purple stems while the taste resembles a mix of anise and cinnamon (which is why locals also refer to this herb as ‘cinnamon basil’). This makes this herb perfect for pho soups, curries, and a lot of meat-based dishes.
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Lemongrass is one of the most widely used herbs in Vietnamese cuisine. The plant is long and tapered, has a light green color, and fibrous stalks. It has a citrusy aroma and strong citrus flavor just without the acid. Its use in Vietnamese cuisine is practically unlimited and you can find it in numerous different dishes and it’s even gaining popularity in a lot of western cuisines where it wasn’t traditionally used before.
Hẹ (Chinese Chives)
Don’t let the word ‘Chinese’ in its name confuse you; you can find this herb all around Vietnam. The plant has long thin stems and a flavur that resembles green onions but Chinese Chives has a stronger texture. Pho, perhaps Vietnam’s most popular dish, wouldn’t taste the same without it but because of its unique flavor, it’s used in a lot of other Vietnamese dishes.
Rau dên (Amaranth)
This plant is more known as Amaranth in the Western World. In ancient times, this was the sacred food of the Aztecs while in Southeast Asia this plant has been one of the basic parts of local diet for hundreds of years. Rau dên is a tall plant with broad leaves that produces thousands of tiny seeds. The leaves are often cooked or even eaten raw because of their sweet flavor. The seeds are also edible and used in flour and some local cereals. Top of Form
Cải Bẹ Xanh (Mustard Leaf)
If you ever visited some locals restaurant in Ho Chi Minh, you probably noticed this lettuce-like vegetable served with bánh xèo. That’s Cải Bẹ Xanh more commonly known as mustard leaf. This plant has round flat leaves with sharp edges. The leaves can be eaten raw, served as a side dish, pickled or cooked in a soup. Bottom of Form
Xà Lách (Vietnamese Lettuce)
If you know a thing or two about Vietnamese cuisine, you’ll know just how important lettuce is when it comes to cooking and serving local dishes. Lettuce is often used for wrappings things up and it can be served as a side with almost any Vietnamese dish. It should be easy to spot it out in the open because it looks quite similar to the regular lettuce. The main difference is the slightly stronger taste.
Bac Ha (Elephant ear stem)
Growing up to 1.5 meters long, Bac Ha is one of the tallest Vietnamese herbs. It’s a lightweight, almost hollow plant with a sponge-like texture and a mild flavor that’s kind of similar to celery. It’s used in Vietnamese cuisine to add texture and absorb the flavors of different local soups and stir-fries. Bac Ha is also used in a lot of natural herb-based medicines because of its high levels of iron, zinc, and phosphorus. You can also find this plant across Southeast Asia and in parts of India.
Bắp Chuối Bào (Shredded Banana Blossom)
Bắp Chuối Bào is perhaps the most common addition to seafood soups. This is the case mostly because of the texture rather than the flavor. The leaves look similar to water spinach but its flavor is slightly sweeter. As for the appearance, it’s a thin and curly plant with yellow-pink edges and a white center, making it very easy to identify out in the nature.
Diếp cá (Houttuynia Cordata Thunb)
Diếp cá is one of the most popular Vietnamese herbs in the southern part of the country. The plant grows in shady locations and has broadly heart-shaped leaves with white-and-yellow flowers. It usually blooms in the summer. As for the taste, diếp cá has a very strong taste and a sharp odor that most tourists can’t stand. However, once mixed with noodles or some salads, its strong taste becomes less noticeable.
Xu hào (Kohlrabi)
Xu Hao (you might also know it under the name kohlrabi) is a plant that belongs to the cabbage family that’s widely used in Vietnamese cuisine. Locals eat it raw, diced or sliced in salads, braised, sautéed, and even stir-fried. Its taste is surprisingly similar to broccoli (with a hint of mustard). Kohlrabi contains a lot of potassium and vitamin C and is also high in fiber.
Lá lốt and Lá Trầu– Vietnamese pepper herbs
Lá lốt (piper lolot) is often confused to Lá Trầu (betel leaf). In a lot of menus in Vietnam, Lá lốt is translated as betel leaf but it’s actually not a betel leaf and now, we’ll show you how to differentiate the two. Betel leaf is a herb used for chewing betel nut. It has a peppery but bitter flavor.
Lá lốt, on the other hand, is another herb with a peppery taste but it’s not bitter and it has a lot more delicate and refined flavor. That’s why it’s used as a key ingredient in numerous different Vietnamese dishes, including bò lá lốt; one of Saigon’s most popular street foods.
Rau Má (Pennywort)
Rau Ma or Pennywort is a herb with small round leaves and tastes a lot like cucumber. It’s a common ingredient in a variety of different fresh rolls and of course, a lot of Vietnamese salads. In the big cities, you can even find smoothies in which pennywort is the main ingredient. If you like eating healthy and drinking green smoothies, definitely try pennywort juice (Vietnamese: nước Rau Má)
Rau Đắng (Bitter Herb)
As its name suggests, this herb tastes very bitter. At a glance, it looks like a rice paddy herb but there are some differences. The bitter herb is a bit smaller, its leaves have smoother edges, and the stem is smooth. Because of its strong taste, it’s not recommendable to eat this herb raw but you can use it in a lot of soups. It’s also served alongside a traditional Vietnamese hot pot for people who want to add some bitterness in their broth.
Rau Càng Cua (Vietnamese Crab Claw Herb)
Rau Càng Cua is a small, crawling plant that slightly heart-shaped leaves with long flower spikes and succulent stems. This herb has a very unusual taste’ it’s fragrant and floral, yet spicy. In Vietnamese cuisine, these herbs are used for a number of different stir-fries (especially beef) and it’s often tossed in local salads.
Tips for Gardening Vietnamese Herbs
All of these Vietnamese herbs have different requirements and different needs. So, before you decide to plant anything, you need to first learn at least the basics about all Vietnamese herbs (hopefully this article helped with that) and see which one of them would fit your needs.
Next, you should see the leave of attention every plant needs and whether you’ll be able to devote enough time and effort to it. Last but not least, don’t forget about the weather. Some of these Vietnamese herbs can survive only in Southeast Asia while others can survive in other climates but might require a lot more attention. You also have to plan when to plant the plants. If you live in a colder region, it’s probably best to plant in spring so that you could harvest before the winter comes.
If you want to keep pests away from your herbs, you can check out Sluggo, a pet-friendly alternative that keeps snails away. To help with keeping bugs away, we usually use Safer Garden Spray and for nurturing the plants, Dr. Earth’s dry fertilizer is a great budget-friendly choice.
Harvesting Vietnamese herbs
If you’re living in a country with a very different climate than Vietnam, it’s important to look at the calendar, see how much time a plant takes to bloom, and when would it be a good time to harvest it. Once this is done, snip a nice sprig that will help the plant bush out rather than getting tall because this might not yield a lot of leaves. When the plants begin to flower snip the flowers off to encourage the plants to put in more energy to producing leaves instead of flowers.
Seeds for Vietnamese Herbs
At the end of the season, let the plants flower, collect the seeds, and sprinkle them into the soil for next year’s crop. If you want to get fresh seeds, the best place are the local Viet markets but if you can’t find one, there are a lot of options online, such as Flora Exotica and Baker Heirloom Seeds that have (among others), a nice selection of Vietnamese seeds that they can ship to anywhere in the world.
Did this article help you learn more about Vietnamese herbs? Did you ever try any of them? Which one was the most appealing? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!
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