How to cook with Asian aromatic herbs

Enhance your dishes with these favorite herbs of summer

Sizzling Saigon Crêpes

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Sizzling Saigon Crêpes: Bánh xèo 

Wrap pieces of these hot, smoky crêpes in cool lettuces and aromatic herbs—the mix is called a table salad*—and dip into Vietnamese dipping sauce.

Recipe: Sizzling Saigon Crêpes

* For table salad, or rau song, use lettuce leaves, thinly sliced cucumber, and any combo of aromatic herb sprigs.

Sweet and Sour Shrimp Soup

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Sweet and Sour Shrimp Soup: Canh chua tôm

Typically served as part of a meal in Vietnam, tangy-sweet, intensely aromatic soups like this one balance the savory, salty flavors of other foods on the table. Of course it tastes pretty great on its own, too.

Recipe: Sweet and Sour Shrimp Soup

Vietnamese coriander

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Vietnamese coriander: Rau ram

Spicy, tangy, and hinting of fresh cilantro, rau ram is usually served, when tender and young, as whole sprigs in a table salad; otherwise, the leaves are added to salads or used to garnish noodles.

More: 4 great noodle bowls

cilantro sprigs

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Cilantro: Rau ngò

Every part of this sweet-floral plant can be used—even the whole stems and roots, which create flavors much more intense than those from the leaves. For your next soup or stir-fry, try adding 1- to 2-inch lengths of cilantro stem.


Shiitake Mushroom and Tofu Soup

Japanese Beef Bowl

Thai basil sprig

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Thai basil: Rau húng quê

Add a handful of these anise-licorice-flavored leaves to curries and soups or to a hot pan with garlic and chiles for stir-fries such as Thai basil chicken.

More: Quick and tasty stir-fries

spearmint sprigs

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Mint, spearmint: Rau húng lui

Mint is what makes many Southeast Asian salads—Thai larb and Vietnamese goi, for instance—come to life. It’s also an integral herb for quick Asian wraps and for garnishing noodle soups.

More: 4 great noodle bowls

Rice paddy herb sprig

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Rice paddy herb: Ngò om

Typically chopped finely, cilantro-like ngò om is added to food—especially braised meat dishes and soups—just before serving. It’s essential in Sweet and Sour Shrimp Soup.

Recipe: Sweet and Sour Shrimp Soup

red shiso leaf

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Red perilla, red shiso: Rau tía tô

A bit lemony and aniselike, rau tía tô is the Vietnamese version of the Japanese red shiso. Shred the leaves and add to noodles, or use them whole as wrappers.

It’s especially delicious with Sizzling Saigon Crêpes.

herb varieties

Photo by Annabelle Breakey

Asian herbs

When I was growing up in Saigon, our family table was always adorned with a platter of aromatic herbs: We used them as wrappers for grilled, pan-fried, and steamed foods and as salads, and we’d sprinkle them into soup. Here in California, I tuck Thai basil into turkey sandwiches, and I bring a stash of Vietnamese coriander to eat with dim sum.

Spring and summer are when you’ll find them fresh—mainly at Asian markets, and at some farmers’ markets. Store them in a plastic bag in the warmest part of your refrigerator, wash them right before using, and slice with a lightweight, very sharp knife to prevent bruising. — Mai Pham

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