10/21/2014 07:00 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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

Alison Spiegel

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.

Vietnames Herbs

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Herb Heavy Vietnamese Dishes