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The role of herbs in Vietnamese dining
The majority of people from outside Asia assume that rice is the staple diet in this part of the world; the subsistence of the people if you will. And they are correct for the most part. However, it’s worth pointing out that in Vietnam, herbs are as an essential component to any meal as the rice itself. Whether one is young or old, any local will have an intrinsic understanding about the particular uses and benefits of edible foliage in their diet. In fact, there is an old saying in Vietnamese that simply translates to: “we eat herbs when we are healthy; we drink them when we are sick”.
This knowledge extends to particular dishes, whereby herbs are chosen to capture and balance out specific flavours – there are five different flavours that should apply to any Vietnamese meal which include bitter, sweet, salty, spicy and sour, so herbs play a very important role in the balance and yin/yang properties of all meals. Also, most Vietnamese can establish quite easily where a particular herb is grown and whether it is organic or not. One general rule is that the bigger the leaves, the lesser the quality. Small organic gardens such as those grown in the centre of Vietnam, will produce stronger tasting herbs, despite the fact that they may not have the more impressive physicality of their city counterparts.
As a foreigner who lives in Hoi An – where there is a specific population of herb growers who consider themselves artisans rather than farmers – I can actually vouch for the fact that one can tell the difference of the origin of herbs in any given dish. Give me a week or so in HCMC and I’m craving to come back for my home-produced herbage. For those residing in La Residence, you