Vietnamese herbs are collectively known as rau thom, literally translated as fragrant leaves. "Rau" generically refers to leafy vegetables and "thom" means fragrant. Note that many of these herbs begin with the word "rau" to denote the full name. In daily conversation, however, it's okay to omit "rau" as people will still know what you're talking about! However, there are a few exceptions, such as rau ram, which you've got say both words for people to understand you.
Eating and cooking Viet requires lots of fresh herbs. Some are easily
recognizable, others will seem more exotic. Below are short discussion on the
different kinds of herbs, how to use them and how to store them. Gardening and seed and plant sources are highlighted in the "Growing Vietnamese Herbs" posting.
- Cilantro and cilantro-like herbs: Ngo (cilantro), ngo gai (culantro), rau ram (Vietnamese coriander)
- Mint, basil, and mint-like herbs: Hung (mint), hung cay (spicy mint), hung que (Thai basil), kinh gioi (Vietnamese balm)
- Other Viet herbs: Tia to (red perilla), diep ca (fish mint), bao om (rice paddy), la lot (wild betel), xa (lemongrass), rau thom (sorrel), thi la (dill)
- How to use herbs the Viet way
- How to keep herbs fresh and perky
In the Vietnamese kitchen most herbs are not used for cooking but rather, eaten raw as an accompaniment to foods. In a democratic fashion, whole stem of herbs are put on a plate along with lettuce leaves, etc. Diners help themselves the herbs of their liking and pinch off the individual leaves to add to their bowl of food or to incorporate into a hand roll. The stems are discarded.
Sometimes fresh herbs are added to finish a dish. In the case of lemongrass —which can't be eaten raw— the stalk is used in the actual cooking process.
In Vietnam, I noticed that people sometimes keep their herbs soaking in water until serving time, which enables them to remain perky. When I returned to the States, I tried this method and found that the herbs tended to pick up too much water, thereby diluting their flavor. Moreover, cilantro lost its shape and didn't take well to this approach.
The method I prefer is sort of a florist approach to preserving herbs. Take your bunch of herbs and trim ½ inch off the stems. Place the bunch in a jar of water. Loosely cover the container with a plastic bag (a clear one will let you see what's inside) and keep it refrigerated. Change the water every third or fourth day and your herbs will last for about a week or two. This works wonders for cilantro, which tends to get slimy in the crisper.
If you're tight for refrigerator space, place a paper towel in the plastic bag with your herbs to absorb excess moisture. Store the herbs in the vegetable/crisper bin.