Shoppers who go to Viet Hoa Asian Market early enough in the morning will find an overflowing bin of fresh green bunches of mysterious leaves in the back corner. Avid shoppers and cooks bump elbows to find just the perfect bundle for their noodle soups and rice dishes.
It's called the rau thom, or herbs, bin and the contents are gloriously green! The aromatic fragrance of the leaves fills the air. Even though the herbs are replenished each morning, the stock is completely picked through by mid-afternoon, so it's important to get to the store early.
Here is a quick guide on several popular herbs and how to use them in Vietnamese cooking.
Rau Ram (Laksa leaves)
Flavor profile: spicy, mild-licorice
Used as a topping for fresh salads, served with balut (fertilized duck eggs), in noodle soups and spring rolls
Tía Tô (Purple Mint)
Flavor profile: minty spice, smells similar to basil
A very pleasant herb used in spring rolls and bì cuon (shredded pork rolls) and to top fresh salads. The leaves are green on one side and purplish on the other. Purple mint is very easy to grow and spreads like wildflowers.
Húng Cây (Peppermint)
Flavor profile: mild peppermint
Used with vermicelli bowls and some salads. This is the most commonly used of the Vietnamese herbs. Plentiful and more familiar to most people, húng cây can be found at many Asian markets.
Húng Lui (Spearmint)
Flavor profile: crisp and spicier than peppermint
Used in vermicelli bowls and fresh salads. I also grow spearmint in my herb garden. This is the mint of choice for mojitos and fruity summer cocktails.
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Rau Om (Rice Patty Herb)
Flavor profile: similar to cumin; spicy, fragrant
Used mostly in soups like canh chua (a sour soup similar to tom yum). Chopped roughly, these also are great as a topping for beef stir-fried with pickled mustard greens. Bo tai chanh (thinly sliced beef cooked with fresh lemon juice) is not complete without this herb. You can find this dish at a few Vietnamese restaurants in Bellaire Chinatown.
Rau Kinh Gioi (Vietnamese Balm or Mint)
Flavor profile: lemony scent and taste
Used to garnish fish or chicken dishes, and also to make medicinal teas and soups. Tastes very similar to tía tô (purple mint). Great in spring rolls!
Dap Cá (Fish Herb or Fish Mint)
Flavor profile: strong, fishy aroma
Used in very traditional Vietnamese cooking, and not so common in westernized dishes because of the fishy flavor. This is my least favorite of the Vietnamese herbs! If I spot them in my rolls or noodle soups, they’re outta there! Many Vietnamese people enjoy this flavor in dishes that they’ve grown up eating in Vietnam.
Be adventurous! Next time you're at the Asian market, check out the herb bins. Now that you have an idea of what you’re seeing and smelling, you’ll be more inclined to pick up a bundle of fresh Vietnamese herbs!