March 21, 2010
Don't get me wrong, I can rough and tumble the Tenderloin (in San Francisco) just as much as the next hipster. Needles and human fecal matter a la drug addict? No problem! But not when I am buying herbs. Their fragrant scent leaves a trail behind me more profound than Hansel and Gretel's hopeless dribble of crumbs. When I get on the phone and foolishly brag to my friend about the bounty of green I have stowed in my purse, I quickly hush myself. Shit! Did anybody hear me? I look around to see if anyone is tailing me. Good, no Vietnamese within earshot.
The Tenderloin is little Saigon meets social services for drug addicts. Next to Project Openhand, you have the most delicious Saigon Sandwiches and Pho Ga. It also houses the only Vietnamese and Cambodian Khmer markets in the city, where I buy me prized herbs. Until next summer, when I finally coax greens stalks out of my little seedlings, I am stuck braving the elements just to get these beauties.
Vietnamese herbs are great because they are so damn edible. Ever try to gnaw on a salad of just rosemary branches? Not for me. But Vietnamese herbs, I could eat them for days. They are mild and perfect to throw on salads, soups, grilled meats, and braised seafood. They are the bright element on the dinner table, juxtaposing the myriad of other textures and flavors set forth.
Let's go through them:
Rau Ram (aka Persicaria odorata) is an herb you find with chicken salad, banana blossom salad, and duck eggs. It is a cross between cilantro, mint and lemon. It is also good to eat in a big pile of herb salad.
Ngo Gai (aka Eryngium foetidum) is a a fun one. It is often called culantro, not to be confused with cilantro. Other names include "saw-leaf herb" and "thorny coriander" because of its rough edges. I tear mine up and use it to festoon my pho bo. It tastes like cilantro, but is more fun to eat. It feels great in your mouth, firmer and tougher than the other leafy greens.
Ngo Om (aka Limnophila aromatica) is also called "rice paddy herb", because that's where it grows. The leaves are smaller and more pungent. Citrusy. They are used to balance strong flavors, such as curry and sour fish soup.
Rau Thom (aka Vietnamese Mint) aka the only mint there really is. Upon first taste, my friend Omar's eye brightened as he exclaimed, "It taste like tooth paste!" It is 100% mint flavor. The American kind is 70% mint, 30% dirt. Its leaves are soft and smooth, like that of Thai basil. I eat it with almost everything: green papaya salad, imperial rolls, fried taro rolls.
Tia To (aka Shiso and its sister Perilla) are often found in Japanese and Korean cooking as well. The flavor of shiso is indescribable. The green shiso has a clean lemon and mint taste. The red shiso is cloudier and a bit mustier. You must taste it to understand the flavor. Shiso is often eaten with bun, rice vermicelli noodles. It sits in a pile next to your bowl, begging for a dip into the fish sauce and into your mouth.