Unlike French cuisine, Vietnamese food does not use many different kinds of sauces to enhance or change a dish’s main ingredients.
But Vietnamese love their flavors. And luckily a range of diverse flavors is readily found naturally in the country, which has a rich herb and spice tradition.
Vietnamese chefs use fresh herbs and spices to add different layers of flavors to a dish. Culturally, food, herbs, and spices also have an important role in balancing the yin and yang aspects of a meal.
Fresh herbs are used even in a simple traditional dish such as nom and goi(vegetable and fruit salad). Street foods, snacks, and fast foods also rely on herbs for flavor. The humble banh my (baguette) sold in the streets includes not only pate, pork, pickles, and cucumbers, but also fresh coriander, spring onion, and basil.
In the past, herbs and spices were grown in the backyard, and the woman of the house could find something fresh to flavor the food whenever she wanted. When I was a kid my mother cooked cha la lot and cha xuong song when we had guests or on the first day of the lunar month.
The cha, or ground pork (or beef) mixed with spring onion, would have the amazing fragrances of la lot (wild betel leaf) and la xuong song (blumea lanceolaria, a long leaf also used to treat cold and fever). The fragrance of these fried dishes would “alert” neighbors.
It was amazing how a few small leaves would change the taste of the fried pork magically. As a kid I even liked to mix steamed rice with the sauce sticking to the pot to savor every last drop.
For thousands of years mothers and grandmothers matched certain herbs and spices for certain dishes. Children learned about basic cooking techniques and matching the main ingredients with herbs and spices through poems.
Con gà cục tác lá chanh
Con lợn ủn ỉn mua hành cho tôi
Con chó khóc đứng khóc ngồi
Mẹ ơi đi chợ mua tôi đồng riềng
Con trâu nói ngả nói nghiêng
Mày đã có riềng để tỏi cho tao
This roughly translates to:
The chicken clucks for lemon leaf
The pig asks for spring onion
The dog desperately wants to have galangal
And the buffalo tells the dog:
Since you have galangal already
Please give me garlic
Thus boiled chicken is served with salt mixed with thin sliced lemon leaves; pork is cooked with spring onion; dog meat is made with rieng (galangal), and buffalo meat is cooked with garlic.
Of course, one can use herbs and spices in different ways. People add herbs to enhance the flavors of canh (soup) – some fry them in oil before frying the meat to deeply infuse the dish with flavor. Some stew them together with the main ingredients. One can also marinate herbs and spices along with main ingredients before cooking.
For soups, spring onion, rau mui (cilantro), thi la (dill), mui tau (sawtooth herb), ngo (rice paddy herb), and rau ram (Vietnamese coriander) are popular herbs. While spring onions go with many different noodles and vegetables, coriander, mui tau, and ngo are usually served with canh chua (fish soup cooked with sour vegetables and fruits).
Cha la lot, cha xuong song
Herbs are usually used in soups, stews, and salads and served with pork and other meat.
Cha la lot and cha xuong song are dishes in which pork and beef are wrapped in leaves and grilled or fried.
But they are time-consuming dishes to cook. Lean pork is cut into small pieces and mixed with thinly sliced spring onions and a bit of fish sauce. This mixture is ground until it becomes tender. The la lotand xuong song leaves are washed and dried before the frying.
The la lot and xuong song leaves are used to wrap the meat mixture and fried evenly on all sides. When the leaf turns golden brown, it is time to arrange cha la lot and cha xuong song on a dish and serve hot with steamed rice.
Matching herbs and spices with main ingredients is also based on yin and yang. Foods that cool the system, such as fish, eel, and seafood, are matched with hot herbs and spices like ginger and lemon grass.
Traditionally Vietnamese have relied on herbal medicines to cure illnesses like cold, fever, stomachache. Besides infusing exotic tastes and flavors to the food, herbs and spices are also served to keep people healthy after a long day’s toil in the field.
By To Van Nga, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the September 28th issue of our print edition, Vietweek)
Banh xeo, a typical Vietnamese dish served with many fresh herbs