How to use Vietnamese herbs in Vietnamese cuisine

Vietnamese Herbs 101: “Rau Thơm” in Vietnamese Cuisine

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Vietnamese herbs, are like the heart and soul of Vietnamese cuisine. From a rich bowl of Phở to crispy Bánh Xèo pancakes, what makes Vietnamese food truly special is the abundance of fresh aromatic herbs (rau thơm) and leafy veggies that come with it.

vietnamese vegetables in wet market

These herbs aren’t just about health perks – they also jazz up the flavors, aromas, and textures of the main dishes. But, if you’re new to Vietnamese cuisine, the variety of greens might throw you off a bit.

No worries, though! I’ve got your back with a friendly guide to the most common Vietnamese herbs, complete with tips on how to make the most of them in Vietnamese cooking.

Most of the photos here are thanks to my mom – a gardening and home-cooking pro. Wrangling up all these Vietnamese herbs in Germany can be a bit tricky, so my mom back in Vietnam is my superhero.

mom in garden

What is Rau Thơm (Vietnamese Herbs)?

Rau Thơm! In Vietnamese, “Rau” is all about leafy greens, and “Thơm” means aromatic.

Rau thơm (aromatic herbs) are a component of “rau sống” platter, which translates to “uncooked/raw leafy greens” in Vietnamese. In Vietnamese cuisine , “rau sống” is a side-dish platter accompanying nearly every dish.

How to use herbs in Vietnamese cuisine

Back in the day, before ‘Western modern medicine’ arrived in my country, fresh herbs were the go-to for everyday ailments like colds, stomachaches, or indigestion. We often whip them up as medical remedies or turn them into comforting dishes for a speedy recovery.

While the majority of the “rau thơm” I’ve covered in my post are commonly found throughout the country, a few are specialties in some local regions.

Keen to delve deeper into Vietnamese cuisine?

Check out Beyond the Pho !! (with insights from a native-born Vietnamese). Some highlights:

Hành Lá (Green Onion)

Hành Lá (Green Onion)

Green onions (hành lá) in Vietnam are sleeker with tinier bulbs compared to the one in Western countries. When enjoyed raw, green onions (chopped or thinly sliced) are mostly used as a garnish for soup and stew dishes.

When being cooked, Vietnamese loves to make green onion into green onion oil / scallion oil (Mỡ Hành) . This condiment is very popular in Vietnamese cuisine (especially in the South).

Mo Hanh, or Vietnamese scallion oil. The vibrant green oil is made by infusing scallions in vegetable oil or pork lard, resulting in a flavorful and aromatic condiment.
Mỡ Hành (Vietnamese Scallion Oil)

Mỡ hành could enhance the appearance and flavors of any dishes like:

While the green part is more for garnishing, the white part is often used as an aromatic ingredient similar to shallots, garlic, and ginger. People use it to marinate or sauté in cooking oil to create a flavorful fragrance to the dish.

Some Vietnamese and Asian recipes using green onions in my blog:

Ngò Rí (Cilantro / Coriander)

Ngò Rí (Cilantro / Coriander)

Coriander is the second most popular “rau thơm” in Vietnamese cuisine, right after hành lá. If you’re in North America, chances are you know it as “cilantro“.

Down in Vietnam, it’s “ngò rí” in the South and “mùi ta” in the North. Vietnamese folks often chop cilantro (together with green onions) to sprinkle on a bowl of soup (like Phở) or rice congee (cháo).

Cilantro/coriander is usually used fresh, whether as a garnish or mixed into a salad to jazz upi ts flavors and colors. You can easily find cilantro in many popular Vietnamese street food like:

In the South, cilantro has bigger leaves and longer stems compared to the nothern one. However, the northern cilantro brings a more potent fragrance. It’s the secret ingredient for the traditional filling of nem rán (Hanoi spring rolls).

Cilantro / coriander seeds are a fantastic spice in Vietnamese cuisine, especially in chicken phở/phở gà (the spices for chicken pho are not the same as the one for beef pho).

Cilantro / coriander roots might not be that popular, but they’re the secret tip from Hanoi phở food stalls to make traditional and tasty chicken phở broth.

They take the spotlight in Thai and Lao cuisines too, like in:

Hẹ (Garlic Chives)

Hẹ (Garlic Chives)

Garlic chives (hẹ) boast a robust, garlicky flavor, as the name suggests. They are often used as a vegetable in stir-fries or soups, and also serve as a fresh herb in various Vietnamese dishes.

In the central region, chives are thinner but have a stronger fragrance. Local people often use them as a substitute for “hành lá” (green onions), either as a garnish or to make chive oil.

You can find garlic chives in many Vietnamese and Chinese recipes like:

Thì Là (Dill)

Thì Là (Dill)

Dill (thì là) is a must-have in the renowned Hanoi dish, chả cá Lã Vọng (turmeric fish with dill). It’s a beloved ingredient in Northern cuisine, particularly in fish dishes like fried fish cakes (chả cá) and fish noodle soup (bún cá).

Dill doesn’t get the same love in the South. Back in my childhood, I wasn’t a fan of dill in mom’s fish soup (canh cá). It took growing up for me to truly appreciate its distinctive flavor.

Ngò Gai (Culantro / Sawtooth Herb)

Ngò Gai (Culantro / Sawtooth Herb)

Culantro/Sawtooth herb – another Vietnamese exotic herb. Known for its long, sharply-serrated leaves that resemble a saw blade, it earns the name “sawtooth herb.” It’s called ngò gai” in the south and “mùi tầu” in the north.

Culantro is often described as having a flavor similar to cilantro, but with a much stronger punch.

It’s particularly popular in the South, often included in “rau sống” in Southern beef phở (phở bò). Besides, it’s also served with bò kho (Vietnamese beef stew).

When I was still in Vietnam, ngò gai was an irreplaceable herb for seasoning canh chua (sour & sweet soup) and canh bí đỏ (pumpkin soup).

Ngò Om (Rice Paddy Herb)

Ngò Om (Rice Paddy Herb)

Rice Paddy herb (ngò om / rau ngổ) is a popular herbal ingredient in Vietnamese cuisine, offering a light citrus lemon flavor with earthy cumin undertones.

In Vietnam, rice paddy herb and culantro are close companion. People, often used them together for garnishing and seasoning dishes such as canh chua (sour & sweet soup) and canh bí đỏ (pumpkin soup).

Similar to culantro, rice paddy herb is also a part of the “rau sống” for Southern phở, alongside Thai basil and mung bean sprouts. Besides, it is my favorite herb for canh khoai mỡ (purple yam soup).

Tía Tô (Perilla Leaves)

Tía Tô (Perilla Leaves)

Perilla Leaf (tía tô), green onion (hành lá), black pepper (tiêu), and congee (cháo) make up a comforting combo for any Vietnamese when they’re feeling sick. A tried-and-true remedy for a cold, and believe me, it works like magic.

Tía tô is a popular member of the rau sống platter family from the North to the South.

In the North, people like to enjoy tía tô with:

Down South, many dishes are incomplete without tía tô, such as:

Kinh Giới (Vietnamese Balm / Cockscomb Mint)

Kinh Giới (Vietnamese Balm / Cockscomb Mint)

Vietnamese balm / cockscomb mint (rau kinh giới) is a well-loved herb in Northern cuisine. This herb boasts a vibrant, warm lemon flavor with a subtle hint of mint, and a touch of spiciness.

You’ll often find it in many Northern specialties like:

Rau Răm (Vietnamese Coriander / Vietnamese Mint)

Rau Răm (Vietnamese Coriander / Vietnamese Mint)

Vietnamese Coriander/Vietnamese Mint (rau răm) is also known as Vietnamese Cilantro or Laksa Leaf. It presents a herbal, grassy, and green flavor infused with spice nuance and a peppery, zingy aftertaste.

In Vietnam, when mentioning rau răm, many people immediately think of hột vịt lộn (fertilized duck egg or Balut).

Yin-yang balance holds great significance in Vietnamese cuisine. Since ancient times, hột vịt lộn is classified as a cold dish with a ‘yin’ element, while rau răm is seen as an ingredient with a hot or ‘yang’ element. This is why they make a perfect culinary couple.

Recipes using rau răm in my blog:

Diếp Cá (Fish Mint)

Diếp Cá (Fish Mint)

Diếp cá poses a challenge not just for foreigners but also for many Vietnamese (quite a few of my Vietnamese friends aren’t fans of rau diếp cá). It has a slightly sour, metallic tang, often described as ‘fishy’ by the Vietnamese.

Despite its divisive taste, for many Vietnamese, diếp cá is more than just a culinary choice. A lot of Vietnamese folks would daily drink fish mint’s juice for its potential health benefits.

Diếp cá is also a popular member of the “rau sống” platter, particularly shining in dishes like bánh xèo (savory pancakes), mì Quảng (Quảng yellow noodles), and cao lầu (Hội An noodles).

Húng Quế (Thai Basil)

Húng Quế (Thai Basil)

Thai basil (húng quế) is one of my most favorite Vietnamese herbs. I’m a fan of its robust aroma, reminiscent of anise with a hint of mint.

This aromatic Thai basil is a key component of the “rau sống” platter for Phở.

In bò bía (Chinese sausage spring rolls), Thai basil is a must-have ingredient, while I personally enjoy it into various stir-fries, such as gà xào xả ớt (spicy lemongrass chicken).

Vietnanese recipes with “húng quế”:

Thai basil also shines in Thai dishes (well, its name does say Thai Basil). It’s a crucial element in green curry paste and can even stand in for holy basil in Pad Kra Pao.

Thai recipes using Thai basil:

Húng Láng (Láng Basil)

Húng Láng (Láng Basil)

Húng Láng is the speciality basil from Láng village near Hanoi. This herb could be found in many Hanoi specialties like phở (Hanoi locals prefer it over Thai basil for phở), bún chả (rice noodles with grilled meatballs), or bánh cuốn (Steamed rice rolls).

Láng Basil leaves are smaller than Thai basil leaves and have a more delicate flavor. However, finding it beyond Vietnam, and even outside Hanoi, is a quest in itself!

Hương Nhu (Holy Basil)

Hương Nhu (Holy Basil)

Compare to Thai basil, holy basil (hương nhu) is more pungent with notes of licorice. In Vietnam, holy basil is more used as a medical remedy rather than as a cooking ingredient.

In Thai cuisine, holy basil is the signature ingredient in Pad Kra Pao, which literally means stir-fried holy basil. Outside of Southeast Asia, it’s quite challenging to get holy basil, so you could substitute it with Thai basil.

Húng Lủi (Spearmint) & Húng Cây (Peppermint)

Húng Lủi (Spearmint)
Húng Lủi (Spearmint)
Húng Cây (Peppermint)
Húng Cây (Peppermint)

These two mint varieties aren’t too distinct from each other, and you can easily swap them in recipes.

In Western cuisine, mint leaves are often used for decorating drinks or desserts. However, in Vietnamese cuisine, they add their refreshing touch to savory dishes.

They are irreplaceable for mì Quảng (Quảng yellow noodles). Additionally, mint leaves enhance the flavors of various Vietnamese dishes such as:

Conveniently available at German supermarkets, I occasionally substitute them with less accessible Vietnamese herbs when preparing dishes such as:

Húng Chanh (Mexican Mint)

Húng Chanh (Mexican Mint)

Known by various names in English such as Mexican Mint, Indian Borage, French Thyme, Cuban Oregano, or Spanish Thyme, this herb goes by “húng chanh” or “tần dày lá” in Vietnam. It boasts a flavor profile reminiscent of thyme and oregano.

In Vietnamese cuisine, húng chanh is commonly found in soups (canh rau), “rau sống” platter and stir-fries.

Lá Lốt (Wild Betel Leaves / Piper Lolot Leaves)

Lá Lốt (Wild Betel Leaves / Piper Lolot Leaves)

Heart-shaped and glossy green, wild betel leaves (lá lốt) have distinct crease down the mid-rib and a creased appearance from prominent veins. Noting that these are not the betel leaves used for chewing, known as “lá trầu” in Vietnamese.

Known for their unique fragrance, wild betel leaves are often incorporated into Vietnamese stir-fries.

The iconic dish featuring these leaves is bò nướng lá lốt (grilled beef wrapped in wild betel leaf), which is a popular street food in the southern regions.

In the North, people prefer chả lá lốt (grilled meatballs wrapped in wild betel leaf). It is often served with jasmine rice (my quick & easy recipe for microwaved jasmine rice) or alongside rice noodles, similar to bún chả.

Rau Khúc (Cudweeds)

Rau Khúc (Cudweeds)

Cudweeds (rau khúc) are a genus of flowering plants. Vietnamese people often use them to make bánh khúc / xôi khúc (“Khúc” Sticky Rice).

It’s kind of challenging to get fresh “rau khúc” abroad, but sometimes you could find powdered “rau khúc” in Asian supermarkets. Many Vietnamese housewives abroad substitute them with kale leaves, kohrabi leaves or spinach.

Rau Đắng (Common Knotgrass)

Rau Đắng (Common Knotgrass)

Rau đắng, literally translated to Vietnamese as “bitter leaves,” has a slightly bitter flavor and is very popular in fish congee (cháo cá rau đắng) as well as when eaten with hot pot.

In my hometown of Nha Trang, people love to pair “rau đắng” with bánh xèo (the small version of savory pancakes in the central region).

Ngải Cứu (Mugwort)

Ngải Cứu (Mugwort)

Mugwort (ngải cứu) is another beloved herb in Northern cuisine, known for its spicy and slightly bitter taste.

Northern people often pair mugwort with eggs or chicken, creating dishes like trứng rán ngải cứu (Vietnamese omelette with mugwort) or gà hầm ngải cứu (chicken slow-cooked with mugwort).

Sả (Lemongrass)

Sả (Lemongrass)

Lemongrass (sả) is not typically served raw as part of a “rau sống” platter, but it’s an incredibly popular ingredient in Vietnamese cooking. It also holds a significant place in Southeast Asian cuisines such as Thai, Khmer, and Malaysian dishes.

With its delightful citrusy aroma and a subtle warm note of ginger, lemongrass can enhance the fragrance of various Vietnamese dishes.

Here’s how versatile this herb is in Vietnamese cuisine:

  • For soups and stew. Don’t forget to lightly pound the stalks to release all that delicious aroma.
  • In marinades for grilled dishes:
  • In stir-fry dishes like:
  • For making sốt sate (Vietnamese sate sauce). This Vietnamese lemongrass chili oil should have a spot in your kitchen.

In Thai cuisine, it’s an essential ingredient in dishes like:

Tỏi (Garlic)

Tỏi (Garlic)

Garlic (tỏi) is a popular herb in Vietnamese cuisine. We prefer using garlic whose cloves are significantly smaller than the popular ones. They are the specialty from Lý Sơn Island, Quảng Ngãi province. Despite their petite size, these garlic gems pack a punch with a deeper flavor.

Raw garlic is an irreplaceable ingredient in:

When it comes to cooking, we Vietnamese folks love put garlic into many dishes, from stir-fries, braises, stews, grills, to even fried dishes. Yet, the undisputed star is rau muống xào tỏi (morning glory and garlic stir-fry).

Besides, fried garlic and garlic oil are amazing ingredients in our cuisine.

A tip from Vietnamese housewives is to use garlic juice instead of minced garlic when marinating grilled food. It helps us steer clear of burnt garlic.

Some Vietnamese and Asian recipes using garlic in my blog:

Hành Tím (Shallots)

Hành Tím (Shallots)

Shallots (hành tím) and garlic form a close-knit couple in Vietnamese cuisine, often used together in cooking, especially for marinades. In some cases, one can be a substitute for the other.

Similar to tỏi, hành tím find their way into nearly every Vietnamese dish. Vietnamese cooks also recommend using shallot juice instead of minced shallots for marinating.

Hành phi (Fried shallots) is incredibly popular as a topping for numerous Vietnamese dishes, including bánh cuốn (steamed rice rolls), bún bò nam bộ (Vietnamese beef noodle salad), and phở trộn (phở noodle salad).

Some Vietnamese and Asian recipes using shallots in my blog:

Tỏi Tây / Hành Boaro (Leeks)

Tỏi Tây / Hành Boaro (Leeks)

Leeks are considered a herb from the West, which is why Vietnamese refer to them as “tỏi tây” (Western garlic) or “hành boaro” (derived from the French word “poireau”).

In Vietnamese cooking, leeks are commonly used as substitutes for garlic, green onions, and shallots in vegan and vegetarian dishes. This practice is prevalent among many Vietnamese who follow Buddhism and avoid consuming these particular vegetables.

Củ Nén / Hành Tăm (Pearl Onions)

Củ Nén / Hành Tăm (Pearl Onions)

Củ nén is a specialty herb from Quảng Nam and Đà Nẵng provinces. Its flavor is a blend of shallots, garlic, and garlic chives but with milder spices and a stronger fragrance.

In Vietnam, mì Quảng (Quảng-style yellow noodles) is not complete without củ nén, but when living abroad, I have to substitute it with pearl onions or even shallots.

Gừng (Ginger)

Gừng (Ginger)

Ginger (gừng) has been a popular remedy in many countries. Vietnamese people use ginger extensively in cooking (just after garlic, green onion, and shallots). Ginger is considered a magical ingredient for removing the odor of meat and seafood.

Considered a ‘Yang’ element with a hot nature, ginger helps balance out ingredients with a ‘Yin’ or cold element in our cooking philosophy. It is often paired with lemongrass to enhance the fragrance of various dishes.

In addition to savory dishes, Vietnamese cuisine incorporates ginger into sweet treats and drinks, such as mứt gừng (candied ginger) or trà gừng (ginger tea).

Some Vietnamese and Asian recipes using ginger in my blog:

Nghệ (Turmeric)

Nghệ (Turmeric)

Similar to dill, turmeric (nghệ) is an irreplaceable ingredient in Hanoi’s famous delicacy: chả cá Lã Vọng (turmeric fish with dill).

It’s also a popular ingredient in the central region in dishes like cá kho nghệ (braised fish with turmeric) or gà kho nghệ (braised chicken with turmeric).

In Vietnam, turmeric is used both in fresh and powdered forms. Beyond its flavor and fragrance, we, Vietnamese often use turmeric to impart a vibrant yellow color to dishes like:

Riềng (Galangal)

Riềng (Galangal)

Less popular than its brother, ginger, galangal (riềng) is much popular in Northern cuisine.

Northern Vietnamese love to infuse a touch of galangal into their daily recipes such as cá kho riềng (caramelized fish with galangal), thịt nướng riềng (galangal grilled pork), and gà nướng riềng (galangal grilled chicken).

Yet, the most iconic dish of the Red River Delta is chân giò nấu giả cầy (braised pork knuckles with galangal and fermented shrimp paste).

Ớt (Chili)

A bowl of Vietnamese fish sauce (nước mắm chấm) with chili, garlic and a flower made from Chili as decoration.

Chili (ớt) is another common ingredient in Vietnamese cuisine, particularly in the central regions like Huế. The food here is often boldly seasoned and accompanied by chilies. Some local people there even enjoy going solo with raw Thai bird’s eye chili with a simple bowl of rice.

Down South, the love for spiciness remains, just with a tad less intensity. In the North, especially Hanoi cuisine leans towards a more mild and balanced flavor, catering to a palate which is friendlier to foreign tourists.

In Vietnam, we love both Thai bird’s eye chili for its fiery kick and goat’s horn chili, for its vibrant red color. Apart from Thai bird’s eye chili and goat’s horn chili, we’re vibing with Thai green Chili. It’s pint-sized, not too spicy, but oh-so fragrant.

ớt xiêm xanh (thai green chili)

In Vietnamese cooking, chilies are used in different forms such as fresh, dried, chili oil, or chili sauce.

While Sriracha from Huy Phong is a popular chili sauce abroad, in Vietnam, brands like Chinsu and Cholimex are favored for their chili sauces.

Vietnamese chili oil (Vietnamese sate sauce) , not like Chinese chili oil, is prepared with chili (minced fresh chili or chili flakes) and lemongrass. It’s a versatile condiment that’s easy to make at home.

Some Vietnamese and Asian recipes using chilies in my blog:

Lá Chanh (Lime Leaves)

Lá Chanh (Lime Leaves)

Lime leaves (lá chanh) are an irreplaceable companion to chicken in Northern cuisine.

You can find lime leaves in many chicken dishes such as phở gà Hà Nội (Hanoi-style chicken phở), gà kho lá chanh (caramelized chicken with lime leaves), or gà luộc (Vietnamese boiled chicken).

Moreover, lime leaves are an ingredient in some Vietnamese dipping sauces like muối tiêu chanh (lime & pepper salt dipping sauce).

If you don’t have lime leaves, you can substitute them with kaffir leaves if you have them on hand.

Lá Chúc (Kaffir Leaves / Makrut Lime Leaves)

Lá Chúc (Kaffir Leaves / Makrut Lime Leaves)

In Vietnam, makrut lime leaves / kaffir leaves (lá chúc) are not a very familiar ingredient; they are only somewhat popular in An Giang, a province bordering Cambodia. People here often use them as a substitute for lime leaves.

Meanwhile, kaffir leaves are a signature ingredient in Thai and Khmer cuisines in many recipes like:

Save or pin this fantastic guide so you always know where to find it. If you have any questions about Vietnamese herbs, whether it’s identifying them or understanding how to use them, feel free to ask—I’m more than happy to help you.

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