Herbs add soul and complexity to dishes. While most cuisines use herbs, they are extremely essential in Viet cuisine. Like the French’s, Viet cuisine is all about celebrating herbs and the elegant use of them in our food.
What is Phở without all those herbal garnishes? There is nothing magical, nothing unforgettable in a Bún Chả without that exact combination of basil, perilla on a base of crunchy freshly cut lettuce and the essence from that chilled slice of cucumber put together by fish sauce to go with smoky fatty grilled meat. Bánh Mì would be so ordinary without those sprigs of nutty citrus cilantro, floral fire dusky red cut chilli bits, and refreshing cucumber laced on the tender juicy meat slices on that French loaf.
When I was growing up, I was told our ancestors only made use of the readily available herbs that grew freely around the garden, the same way a brilliant chef makes good use of all things available in his/her kitchen and creates real magic with just those very ordinary. Whenever I have a Pho, the first thing I look for is if the restaurant uses culantro. It’s a deal breaker for me. No Pho is complete without culantro. One of my very early childhood memories was crawling around the red brick backyard at grandfather’s house picking culantro grew out of the cracks and crushed it to smell (yea my mom used to call me Smell queen cos I wanted to smell everything!). Every bowl of Pho evokes that very dear piece of memory, and the simple bowl of homely Phở Gà my grandma used to make with just culantro.
Despite the many herbs we have in a Viet garden, certain dishes only use a certain set of herbs which have become the standard chosen over time. That’s how Pho and all other dishes were built as we know today. Let’s celebrate cultural diversity starting with appreciating the little herbs used in Viet cuisine more than as a way to brighten the dishes. They come with a long history of over 2000 years.
Fun fact: A majority of westerner customers at Que are French. We almost could tell!
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