The fresh herb section

 

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All herbs $.79/bag. Labels in Vietnamese, except the word “basil”. Big 8 Supermarket.

Fresh herbs are absolutely key for several Southeast Asian culinary traditions. In particular, foods of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam rely heavily on leafy herbs. Fresh aromatic herbs can easily be the variable that will make a mediocre dish something extraordinary.

In Southeast Asia, fresh herbs top all manner of prepared foods, from soups to stir fries, from salads to leafy wraps. Coarsely chopped herbs are an integral part of the genre of Thai/Lao minced meat salads Laab ลาบ, as well as for the sour mixed salad genre known as yum ยำ. Herbs are important flavor components to stews and stir fries, exemplified with Thailand’s most common street food of holy basil stir fries, and rich soups and stews flavored with cilantro, sawtooth coriander, Thai basil, or dill. Herbs are also crucial in Vietnamese rice paper wraps and noodle dishes. Finally, herbs can simply be served on the side, things to munch on as ideal pairings to various intensely-flavored (usually meat) dishes.

Take one of my favorite cookbooks for example. It is a Thai language cookbook called Saep Isaan [Delicious Isaan] แซบอีสาน, by Ratri Gaewsaengtaam ราตรี แก้วแสงธรรม, published by Amarin Press, 2012. The recipes are written with extensive introductions to a large variety of leaves, herbs, and vines common to the Northeastern region of Thailand (aka Isaan). See how herbs are used in in the dishes on the cover and the back of the book. Notice the pennywort leaves served alongside the cover’s featured dish “smashed beans and crispy pork” (tamthua muukrob). See how most recipes on the back are served paired with fresh herbs. Finally, find the fresh herbs at the bottom, showcased in little glass vases.


Clearly fresh herbs and leaves have an important place at the Isaan table. The same can be said for regions of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. While this amazing cookbook introduces about twice as many herbs and leaves than I have had the pleasure to encounter in Philadelphia, we do have several markets that maintain respectable and reliable fresh herb offerings.

The best selections of Asian herbs
Southeast Asian-focused markets have larger selections of fresh herbs than others Asian markets. Chinatown markets, for example, have extensive green vegetable selections, but they won’t have much in terms of herbs besides cilantro and occasional Thai basil and mint. The large Sino-Vietnamese markets on Washington Ave (Hung Vuong at 12th St, Big 8 Supermarket at 16th St–locations for images above) are good places to start. Cambodian markets of North and South Philly (look for dark green pins on my map of Asian Markets) generally carry the same items as the big markets and sometimes have the less commonly encountered items. Some exceptions: Green shiso leaves would be better found at Korean markets. Curry leaves would be more common at South Asian or Indian markets, and western herbs (Rosemary, thyme, oregano, etc) are best sought at mainstream US groceries.

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The fresh herb section (middle shelf) at Hung Vuong Market on Washington Ave

Navigating market offerings
Unfortunately for those of you who are not too familiar with Asian herbs, markets don’t  bother with labeling the herbs in English. That said, many do have hand-written tags in Vietnamese. Sometimes bags are misplaced though, and sometimes things are mislabeled. Offerings are pretty standard at the big markets on Washington, though, where they sell herbs in small pre-sized plastic bags (usually .79 or .89 each–much cheaper than “exotic” herbs for sale in mainstream US groceries). Smaller Cambodian markets might have their herbs pre-bagged or in bulk in large tubs or boxes in the fridge. Sometimes they are just sitting on a counter. Spend some time checking them out, smelling the bags, getting to know what they are. Talk to the shopkeepers–even if they don’t know how to call it in English, they might be able to tell you what to do with it (shopkeepers at small markets in North and South Philly are especially helpful).


A visual directory of common herbs in Southeast Asian cooking

Below is an added bonus of a visual directory of the most typical Southeast Asian herbs taken mostly from past posts, starting with the most common (a few of those you can even find at mainstream US grocers) to the more obscure. Hopefully this helps…


Cilantro (aka coriander). If you are reading this blog, surely you are acquainted. IMG_2557

Dill. Great in soups/stews, or for munching on.IMG_2781

Mint. Great in minced meat salads, Vietnamese wraps, or for munching on.IMG_3348

Chinese garlic chives (jiucai 韭菜). These are the leaves used in a recipe in this poststem and flower discussed in this post.IMG_3289

Thai basil (horapha). Dedicated post here. Not to be confused with holy basil.IMG_2687

Sawtooth coriander. Dedicated post here. This can often be found at Mexican markets too.IMG_1419

Vietnamese mint. Dedicated post here. Sometimes called “Lady’s thumb”.IMG_2556

Rice paddy herb. Nice in fish soups.not semizotu

Kaffir Lime leaves (bai magrut). Dedicated post here.makrut2

Vietnamese balm. (top right in below image).DSC00595

Cha plu leaves. Dedicated post here. Great as wraps for savory bits.IMG_3185

Lemon basil (ii tuu, or maenglak). Great in fish curries, beef stews.DSC00629

Acacia fronds (cha-om). Highlighted in this post. Smells funky but is delicious.IMG_3255

Holy basil (kapao).  Dedicated post here.gapao_01

Pennywort. This is great as an accompaniment, and it is also made into a healthy drink.IMG_2495

Fishmint. Tastes a bit like “Vietnamese mint” and a bit like fish. No joke.IMG_3928

Curry leaves. highlighted in recipe here. Common in South India and Cambodia.IMG_3415

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About David Dettmann

Food obsessed and frequently nostalgic.
This entry was posted in - Featured Food Discoveries, - Featured Markets, - Guides, Cambodian food, Thai/Lao food, Vietnamese food and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The fresh herb section

  1. Jenny says:

    What an informative post! When I first moved to America and tried to recreate home-style spicy dishes, I always found something was missing. Later I realized it was because we put silantro on everything and just a small pinch makes all the difference. Basil is also commonly used in Taiwanese cuisine. A famous one is sanbeiji (三杯鸡, three-cup chicken). Squid and tofu are sometimes substituted for chicken to make other sanbei stews.This post is making me want to explore Vietnamese food a lot more for sure! Thanks David!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Vietnamese Plaza in Near Northeast Philadelphia | Asian Markets of Philadelphia

  3. Pingback: Edible Southeast Asian tree and bush leaves | Asian Markets of Philadelphia

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