rau thom directly translated as "leafy fragrant" and refers to a platter of aromatic herbs used in vietnamese cuisine. This is a kind of central dish / side dish or "salad" is almost an indispensable part in many Vietnamese meals. Its Hard to translate the western equivalent as a table serving, as we don't tend to add plant material to our meals the same way - except as a limited token amount such as a garnish - While it is considered gauche in the West to eat your herbacious garnish, rau thom is not just a garnish, this pile of uncooked plant material -freshly cut leaves stems and rarely flowers, found on a plate in the center of the table as an open invitation to add verdant vegetation to your meal. Watch out for the stems, they don't tend to be added to the "go into your mouth" part of the meal, watching locals you will note they most always add only tips and leaves, if you see otherwise, suspect you are watching an undercover tourist.
My first encounter with rau thom was in one of the ubiqutious Pho bo shops in Hanoi. I watched the other customers select handfuls of the herbs / greens, and break them up into smaller pieces, constructing a small tropical island upon their steaming beef noodle soup. Exploring it for myself I found the taste to be delicious! My advice in adding rau thom is to try the distinct flavors varying the ratio to find that personal preference. The important "Vietnamese habit" to develop is, once you find the ones you like - add lots! It's also worth noting if you happen to be in Vietnam itself and not just in a gastronomic outpost, that the herbs will vary with type of meal, the season and which region you are in.
With soup (placed on top)
- Hung Cay
- Hung / Hung Lui / Hung Diu / Hung Lang
Mentha arvensis, mentha spicata, mentha x gracilis
- Ngo / Mui
Cilantro, Chinese coriander, coriander
- Ngo Gai / Mui Tau / Goa Tau
Mexican coriander, thorny coriander, cilantro, saw-leaf herb, saw-tooth herb, recao (stronger more earthy cilantro taste)
- Rau Ram
Vietnamese coriander* (spicy, slight coriander taste
- Kinh Gioi
Vietnamese Balm, Vietnamese mint (lemony taste)
- Hung Que
"cinnamon mint" Asian basil holy basil (spicy, earthy taste completely different from Italian basil)
- (no Vietnamese name)
Apparently American Vietnamese also use
sorrel as rau thom
With meat (used to wrap the pieces)
It is important to understand that in Vietnam the herbs are eaten as greens, these plants often grow in such abundance in the fields and waterway, wild and as weeds that it is not even neccessary to cultivate them in the strict sense. When thinking of Vietnamese herbs the image of salad is much more apt than the dried leaf fragments many Westerners are accustomed to.
Along with fish sauce
, these herbs help balance the deficiencies of a predominatly rice
centred diet. As herbs they often have bioactive
properties having medicinal
as well as culunary
value - "increasing circulation" or "aiding digestion" or just "promoting general wellbeing.
The Vietnamese keep cut herbs in bags blown up with air preventing them from becoming bruised (damaged leaves release a cascade of oxidizing metabolites), sitting in water - like cut flowers, or freshening in baths of cool water.
*NBknow as "Vietnanese mint" by Australians. Thanks sneff
Reference: At the time of writing pictures of these plants could be found at: http://www.vietworldkitchen.com/essentials/herbs.htm . These picture are very useful in distinguishing between different herbs