The Secret To What Makes Vietnamese Cuisine So Good? It's All In The Herbs

It's all about the herbs, man.

There are many things to love about Vietnamese food. The noodle soups, which go way beyond the infamous pho, the Banh Mi sandwiches -- spicy filling enveloped by fluffy bread with crunchy crusts -- and the coffee -- strong, almost chocolatey in flavor and always served on top of a thick layer of sweetened condensed milk. Anthony Bourdain loves Vietnamese food so much that in a recent episode of "Parts Unknown" he called Vietnam "one of [his] favorite places on Earth," Eater reported in an article documenting his best one-liners from the show. Eating something he couldn't quite identify, Bourdain gushed, "It's so delicious, I feel like an animal." In short, the list of reasons to love Vietnamese food is long and enticing. If we had to pick one thing that we love most, however, it would be the herbs. The delicate, flavorful, colorful fresh herbs known, as a whole, as rau thom, or "fresh vegetable," are one of Vietnamese food's best and most distinguishing features.

vietnamese herbs

Whether you're ordering a steaming bowl of soup or a crispy, fried crab spring roll, your dish will almost always arrive with a heaping plate of aromatic fresh herbs. From Thai basil to coriander (or cilantro, to us Westerners), fresh herbs are thrown into salads, wrapped in fresh rolls, and served in piles to garnish soups. Depending on the dish, you're meant to add the herbs to the dish, wrap or roll your food in the herbs, or simply eat them on their own as a palate cleanser or flavor enhancer between bites. Although they come separately, they aren't a mere accompaniment to your dish. They are an integral component of the meal. The Vietnamese were well ahead of the deconstructed food trend in this regard. The fresh flavor and crisp texture that herbs bring to beefy soups, pork-laden noodles or deep-fried spring rolls cannot be understated. A fresh sprig of mint not only cuts the salt of a minced pork patty served on top of noodles, but also lightens the meal, bringing a bright, zingy relief.

What's more, adding and using fresh herbs makes eating Vietnamese food incredibly fun. You can choose to drop as much coriander into your soup as you want, and pick as much mint and basil for your rice pancake as you like -- it's "choose-your-own-adventure" with every bite. Again, the Vietnamese were centuries ahead of time times; in this case, they were frontrunners on the build-your-own, customized food trend.

Here are a list of 9 of the most commonly used Vietnamese herbs. And see the slideshow below for some herbacious Vietnamese dishes.

Sawtooth Coriander (Or Cilantro)
Andrew Bret Wallis via Getty Images
The jagged edge leaves of this plant are wonderfully fragrant and are one of the most ubiquitous herbs found in Vietnamese food. They're used to garnish soups and salads and to bring zesty freshness to everything from fish dishes to spring rolls.
Sweet Potato Plant Leaves
Alison Spiegel
Before the sweet potato even grows, the plants sprout large, spade-shaped leaves that Vietnamese cuisine puts to good use. Both the stems and stalks are good for soups.
Alison Spiegel
Most of the herb plate is various shades of green, but amaranth adds color with its purplish-reddish hue. It's often sautéed or boiled and served with dipping sauces.
Bitter Herb
Alison Spiegel
Not just for the Seder plate, bitter herb, is, as its name suggests, bitter. It's used in noodle soups, and thrown into stew-like hot pot dishes.
Asian Basil
Alison Spiegel
Another ubiquitous herb, Asian basil is dropped into soups, wrapped in pancakes and served as a garnish for just about anything. Also known as Thai basil, it is ever-so-slightly spicier than its Italian counterpart, with hints of anise.
Margarita Komine via Getty Images
Another blockbuster in everything from soups to banh mi, mint is probably the most refreshing herb. You won't find an herb plate without it.
Alison Spiegel
Citrusy, slightly sweet and a little pungeant, lemongrass adds layers of complexity to whatever it touches. You might find a stalk adding a wealth of flavor to your soup or steeping in honey-sweetened hot water for a tea. You might also see the ends chopped off and cooked with a vegetable or beef dish. However lemongrass finds its way into your food, you can't miss it.
Water Spinach or Morning Glory
Alison Spiegel
Typically stir-fried -- stems and all -- with garlic and seasoned with spices or chilis, water spinach or morning glory is a very common side dish in Vietnam.
lacaosa via Getty Images
Dill is a common herb in Northern Vietnam, and is one of the essential ingredients in some speciality dishes of Hanoi, like Cha Ca, a fish dish made with scallions and dill.

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Herb Heavy Vietnamese Dishes