Herbs is indispensable in the creation of aromatic broth of Vietnamese pho. Similar to Kimchi for Korean - herbs is a mandatory element to every Vietnamese family's dining table.
Herbs in Vietnam's culinary journey are irreplaceable components yet nearly the most identifiable. A herbs platter with plentiful greens will be served whenever you order a classic beef pho or fried spring rolls, you can simply personalize your meal with these herbs and nuoc mam. Let us share with you a simple glossary about the most common herbs that you need to know before you hop into another Vietnamese restaurant for a hearty Vietnamese meal.
1/ Thai Basil (hung que)
Thai basil differs from the basil leaves that are commonly used by Western cuisine as a source base or collocate with tomatoes. It has a purplish tinge to its leaves and stems and a more anisey flavor profile than sweet basil.
Thai basil is commonplace on the herbs platter, especially the Southern Vietnamese edition.
2/ Bird's-eyes Chili (hiem)
Bird's-eyes Chili is tiny in shape with a pointy end. It turns fiercely red when mature, and sometimes orange depending on maturity.
Sliced into pieces, bird's-eyes Chili is an unbeatable condiment to add extra spiciness into the pho broth. It is much spicier and more fragrant than jalapenos, remember to add piece by piece before it goes beyond your limit.
3/ Cilantro (rau mui)
Cilantro is also called Chinese coriander. It is a popular herb that you could see not only in Vietnamese food but also in Mexican and Malaysian cuisine, etc.
They are usually being sprinkled on top of the food and served raw to keep their unique citrus, bitter flavors and to add extra aroma and color. You either hate it or love it.
4/ Mint (hung lui)
Mint is diversified in Vietnam. It has spearmint - sweet and mild mint flavor with darker and rounded leaves; peppermint - strong, spicy, mint flavor with pointy serrated leaves; and water mint - intensely minty with thicker and slight hair leaves.
Mint is a common ingredient you could see in various dishes like rice paper roll (goi cuon) and salad.
5/ Culantro (ngo gai)
Culantro has a similar taste and name to cilantro, also known as the sawtooth herb. The leaves are longer, tougher and with a serrated shape, it comes to a stronger taste and is more durable in hot broth.
Culantro is a rare herb that you hardly find in other countries but it is commonly used in Saigon. The distinct taste makes it popular in hotter climates in Vietnam. At BEP, we have already sourced this unique and relatively rare goodie for your enjoyment.
6/ Perilla (tia to)
Perilla is also known as shiso in Japanese. It has a unique feature that leaves are green on top, purplish color on the bottom. Its shape is slightly serrated and finely-haired.
Perilla is also a member of the mint family. It has a strong and bold earthy taste which is usually chopped into slices and used in seafood dishes or salads.
7/ Vietnamese Balm (kinh gioi)
Another name of Vietnamese balm is lemon mint. It has a similar outward as mint, the leaves tend to be rounder and brighter in green. Vietnamese balm is less likely to be found in the local market and it only has one variety while mint has over 40.
Vietnamese balm gives a decent lemony flavor to the dish which is the best herb to balance the grease in meat dishes.
8/ Vietnamese Coriander (rau ram)
Vietnamese coriander has nothing related to cilantro (Chinese coriander), from its look to taste. The leaves are long, thin, and have a pointy end with smooth edges.
Unlike cilantro, the stem of Vietnamese coriander is unedible, people will pick the leaves off. Its aroma is stronger than cilantro and has a distinctive citrus note which is commonly used in poultry dishes.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in August 2021, and was most recently updated in February 2022.
Reference source: Lucky Peach, The Pho Issue, Summer 2016