Thursday, 24 February 2011

Fresh herbs and other fresh condiments in Vietnamese Food: Cultural ramblings

Vietnamese food without fresh herbs and fresh condiments is not Vietnamese food.
It does sound a bit fanatical. But it is true.
When I first came to Sydney in early 60s my herbs and fresh condiments supply were very limited. I depended on the Mediterranean grocers for garlic, mint, basil (bush or sweet not the cinnamon basil) and dill. I tried to grow coriander from coriander seeds very unsuccessfully.  Ginger and green shallot were available from China town. I had to be contented with dried galangal and turmeric powder. My English teacher provided me with his bush lemon leaves. But thanks to the wave of Vietnamese arriving after 1975, Vietnamese greens and fresh herbs supplies have improved a thousand fold.  

A selection of greens at a grocery in Inala, 
Fresh herbs add extra dimension to the food, they can also be used to balance the ingredients in a dish, which make Vietnamese food healthy, rich and clean. 

At any Vietnamese table, the centre pieces are the big bowl of fresh greens, they could be lettuces, young mustard greens, mango, fig or any edible young leaves and fresh mixed herbs which could be any of the following herbs in season:
Coriander, spiky coriander (eryngo), red Parilla, green Parilla, paddy field herb, cinnamon basil, mint, Vietnamese mint, sorrel (la chua), and chrysanthemum etc.

In Southern Vietnam the “fish mint” is very popular, it is said to help to improve vision.  In the North we do not use this herb often except to eat with the boiled half hatched duck eggs. Other fresh spices are green shallot, purple shallot, onions, ginger, garlic, turmeric, galangal, tamarind pods and leaves, lemon or lime leaves etc. 

There are more than ten medicinal herbs and greens, such as the young tips of lemon, guava, fig, furry apricot trees are required for raw fish and different games meat including dog meat dishes. Most of these greens and herbs are used to kill any bacteria  or other harmful microorganisms thriving in the games meat. The photos below are of some available herbs in Australia today, many serve both medicinal and culinary purposes. 

Chinese chive
Soft lettuce 

Each herb and green as well as other individual food ingredient has its own temperament, either hot, cold or neutral and to know how to combine these ingredients properly to keep the body balance;to me, that is the key to a healthy life.

My first lesson in the proper use of ingredients is the following verse:

“Con ga cuc tac la chanh (the chook calls out for lemon leaves)
Con lon un in mua hanh cho toi (the pig asks for shallots)
Con cho khoc dung khoc ngoi (The dog cries out)
Ba oi di cho mua toi dong gieng” (please buy me some galangal) 

Vietnamese mint 'Rau ram'
Normal mint
Fish mint 'Rau dap'

After a couple of years working with the Queensland Department of Primary Industries I add a few more Australian native plants to my cooking repertoireIn my garden besides galangal, turmeric, ginger, Vietnamese mint, mint, cinnamon basil, lemon grass, I also have lemon myrtle, cinnamon myrtle and curry myrtle, finger lime, nasturtium, Japanese yuzu,  curry tree, parsley, oregano, sorrel, thyme, sage, tarragon, rosemary and a large bay tree.

'Hanh La' green shallot
'Rau Mui' Coriander
'Tia to' Perilla 
It is a pleasure to pick what I need directly from my garden.
Emmie Willis, a science graduate who actually taught me blogging, approves of the idea of eating from the garden, she makes jewellery and with every piece of her work she presents it in a small pot and a packet of seed to encourage people to grow their own edible plants.

There is more hope for the environment and human health with this future generation.


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