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.
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.
Dill. Great in soups/stews, or for munching on.
Mint. Great in minced meat salads, Vietnamese wraps, or for munching on.
Thai basil (horapha). Dedicated post here. Not to be confused with holy basil.
Sawtooth coriander. Dedicated post here. This can often be found at Mexican markets too.
Vietnamese mint. Dedicated post here. Sometimes called “Lady’s thumb”.
Rice paddy herb. Nice in fish soups.
Kaffir Lime leaves (bai magrut). Dedicated post here.
Vietnamese balm. (top right in below image).
Cha plu leaves. Dedicated post here. Great as wraps for savory bits.
Lemon basil (ii tuu, or maenglak). Great in fish curries, beef stews.
Acacia fronds (cha-om). Highlighted in this post. Smells funky but is delicious.
Holy basil (kapao). Dedicated post here.
Pennywort. This is great as an accompaniment, and it is also made into a healthy drink.
Fishmint. Tastes a bit like “Vietnamese mint” and a bit like fish. No joke.
Curry leaves. highlighted in recipe here. Common in South India and Cambodia.