Fresh herbs at the center of Vietnamese cuisine

Fish mint
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

At this time of year, like many cooks, I’m obsessed with fresh herbs. But you can keep your Genovese basil, French tarragon and Italian parsley; for me the magic is in the leafy aromatics of the Vietnamese table -- red perilla, garlic chives and rice paddy herb, to name just a few. I grow the herbs in my garden as well as purchase them by the bunch at farmers markets and Asian markets to ensure that I savor as much as I can during their peak hot-weather season.

Fresh herbs are essential to Vietnamese cuisine; their flavors and perfumes enliven countless foods. Pinched off their stems or chopped, raw leaves are tucked into rice paper rolls, dropped into hot soup, mixed into cool salads, stir-fried with noodles and wrapped up with grilled morsels in lettuce. Vietnamese people enjoy large quantities of fresh herbs, and in fact, herbs are collectively known as rau thom, which means “fragrant vegetable.”

Consider their role in pho noodle soup: The ubiquitous national dish of Vietnam depends on the last-minute addition of herbs, without which the flavors would seem off and the dining experience would feel incomplete.

Heady beef pho, redolent of star anise and cinnamon, benefits from the bright notes of chopped cilantro that the cook sprinkles atop the hot broth right before the bowl leaves the kitchen. Then at the table, there are more herbs involved as diners add their personal touches with torn leaves of Thai basil, culantro or mint; dropping in extra herbs while working toward the bottom of the bowl is fine too.

Fresh herbs are integral to the layering of flavors in Vietnamese cuisine, as well as the “have it your way” Vietnamese dining philosophy.

Aside from contributing to the symphony of flavors in the mouth, some fresh herbs aid digestion, while others are Vietnamese folk remedies for fever, colds and headaches. When you combine the herbs with chiles, spices and aromatics such as ginger, galangal and turmeric, which all boast their own health benefits, you have a potent phytochemical mix.

When my family settled in Southern California in 1975, the only herbs we recognized at the supermarket were cilantro, mint and the occasional sprig of dill. That worked OK because cilantro and mint are the herbs used most often in the Vietnamese repertoire.

My family of seven went through a couple of bunches a week for salads, soups and rice paper rolls. When dill was available, the feathery tops were used for favorites such as canh rieu ca, a traditional everyday soup featuring fish, tomato and a final flourish of raw garlic and dill.

Today, with Southern California’s robust Vietnamese American community and increased interest in ethnic cooking, the variety of herbs available here includes all the major ones traditionally and currently enjoyed in Vietnam. Between now and late fall, Vietnamese and Chinese markets are flush with herbs.

For a culinary adventure, go to one of Orange County’s Little Saigon markets on a Saturday, when the clamorous crowds and food smells recall the real Saigon. In the produce section, locate the usual suspects, cilantro and mint. Nearby, you might see bunches of a spicy mint called hung cay (Mentha x. gracilis) whose delicate, round-shaped leaves belie their eye-popping flavor.

Equally bracing are the spade-shaped leaves of fish mint (Vietnamese name diep ca, botanical name Houttuynia cordata), also called bishop’s weed, which give a tangy, pungent edge to boldly flavored food such as grilled beef with lemon grass. Cilantro lovers will revel in spear-shaped Vietnamese coriander (rau ram, Polygonum odoratum), which lends its peppery cilantro backbite to Vietnamese soups and salads; rau ram is also popular in other Southeast Asian countries, particularly Malaysia and Singapore, where it is called daun kesom and daun laksa.

Japanese and Korean food aficionados will recognize the large serrated leaves of red perilla (tia to, Perilla frutescens) as a member of the shiso family. Vietnamese cooks favor a variety with leaves that are purple-garnet underneath and green on top and that offers hints of cinnamon, mint and lemon.

Verdant Vietnamese balm (kinh gioi, Elshotzia ciliata) is my favorite Vietnamese herb, its delicate saw-edged, fuzzy leaves have an uncommon lemon grass- or lemon verbena-like quality. The assertive flavors of these two herbs stand up well to grilled meats and are terrific additions to rice paper rolls, lettuce wraps and bun rice noodle bowls.

Asian markets often sell the more delicate herbs already packaged. For example, clove-scented Thai basil (hung que, Ocimum basilicum var.) and thorn-edged slender leaves of culantro (ngo gai, Eryngium foetidum), both wonderful with pho, are typically under plastic wrap on Styrofoam trays.

Small plastic bags often hold charming rice paddy herb (rau om, Limnophila aromatica), its stems and small rounded leaves packed with citrus and cumin notes that pair well with curries and tamarind-inflected seafood soups. Heart-shaped wild betel leaf (la lot, Piper sarmentosum ), classically paired with beef, is either on Styrofoam trays or in small bunches.

Peruse the leafy greens section to find large bunches of flat, long green blades of Chinese chives (he, Allium tuberosum). Hard-core Vietnamese cooks tuck a few raw chives into their goi cuon rice paper rolls to add a mild garlicky bite. During the summer when Chinese chives are abundant and very well-priced, I harvest and purchase humongous bunches to stir-fry with flat rice noodles, pork and shrimp, a childhood favorite of mine.

The chives are used throughout East and Southeast Asia, so you’ll encounter them at many Asian markets.

Vietnamese cuisine is not one to stand still for long, and in recent years, Vietnamese Americans longing for the tartness of star fruit have found a worthy substitute in sorrel (rau chua, Rumex acetosa), and enjoy it with grilled and fried foods. In Vietnam, tender stalks of cutting celery (rau can, Apium graveolens) that resemble Italian flat-leaf parsley have recently appeared on the scene as a pungent addition to favorites such as crisp lotus stem salad.

The overseas Vietnamese community is slowly adopting these practices and you will encounter the nontraditional herbs at several Little Saigon markets.

Even without going to an Asian market, you can find Vietnamese herbs if you hunt a bit at farmers markets. For example, at the Wednesday and Saturday Santa Monica farmers markets, Coleman Farms offers several kinds of mint, including a variety they call Vietnamese mint.

Bill Coleman and his wife, Delia, sponsored three children from Vietnam and he is very knowledgeable about and interested in Vietnamese herbs. Coleman Farms has cultivated and sold rau ram along with many kinds of Southeast Asian basil for years.

In the mid-1990s they sold three varieties of shiso, but now only offer the green and red shiso, reflecting popular interest in Japanese cooking.

“We used to grow Vietnamese tia to but no one wanted it. I’d grow it again if enough people ask,” Bill said.

He also suggested checking with Hmong farmers who often have zippy lemon basil, which isn’t frequently used in Vietnamese cooking though I like to chop up the fuzzy pale green leaves for spicy Asian slaws and green salads. Hmong farmers are also a great source for gorgeous lemon grass stalks, which you can trim and freeze for cooler months.

When buying plants, try to connect with the vendors for more secrets. For example, I’ve had difficulty with rice paddy herb (rau om). I used to cover the container with a plastic bag to create a tiny greenhouse but eventually scorched the poor plant.

This year when I bought new starter plants, the Viet grower did something remarkable -- he lined the gallon plastic container with a thin produce bag to partially flood the plant and mimic Southeast Asia’s wet growing conditions. His new trick seems to be working.

This year, I have a bumper crop of rice paddy herb and in addition to using it for traditional Vietnamese fare, I have experimented by including it in tabbouleh, quinoa and guacamole. One friend even suggests imbuing mojitos with Vietnamese balm.

When it comes to Vietnamese herbs, there’s a world of possibilities.