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A Guide to Phở Herbs and Condiments

If you plan on making a trip to Vietnam any time soon, chances are you will have to face up to the fact that you will gain a lot of weight from eating phở.

Incidentally, you will consume copious amounts of the herbs, greens, condiments, and accompaniments that they usually serve with a steaming hot bowl of phở, may it be chicken, beef, or pork phở . The plate of greens and the myriad condiments they have on the table are de rigeur for any Vietnamese restaurant, and you can naturally help yourself with everything so that you can layer different tastes, textures, flavor profiles to paint the relatively sparsely flavoured canvas that you have been dealt with.

The secret to good phở  is inarguably the broth. It is really the bulk of what makes phở  an excellent meal: the warm and comforting reassurance of slow-cooked and expertly seasoned soup. Everything else is somehow secondary. If the soupy goodness is not there, you might as well leave and go to another stand nearby (which is not at all a challenge in Saigon, because there will surely be another phở  stand within a few kembot’s distance).

A lot of these herbs and greens are quite unique to Vietnamese cooking but they are generally classified as rau or anything leafy (interestingly, one of the better Vietnamese restaurants in Bacolod is called Rau Ram after the spicy Vietnamese herb that you usually find on a plate of steaming hot chili crab). I had quite an interesting time quizzing Vietnamese servers who barely spoke English regarding what everything was on the plate, not realising of course, that you can just basically Google everything. One exasperated waiter just motioned that I should just shut my mouth and dump everything in my bowl and be on my merry way.

Anyway.

When you order a bowl of phởm they will dish out a brothy bowl of meat with some splashes of cilantro and spring onion in there (pictured). It’s basically good as is. But come on, where’s your sense of adventure? Vietnamese cooking has a lot of roughage, which makes it easy to… um, you know. Needless to say I had a belly good time in Vietnam, let’s just put it that way. So that tells you that if you are looking for a fibrous and light diet, Vietnamese is the way to go.

Now that we are on the topic of roughage, let me get you acquainted with the wealth of green and leafy herbs and condiments that you should unabashedly dunk in your bowl of phở:

Condiments, Top row: L-R: Chili Sauce, Red Ginger Sauce, Garlic Chili Sauce and Sticky Dark Soy Sauce. 

These are a little self-explanatory. Vietnamese food is really not as harshly spicy as say, Thai or Indonesian, but they also have options in case you want to fire up your otherwise blissfully neutral bowl of phở . You can put as much spice as you want, but there really is a nice subtlety and refinement to Vietnamese cuisine that doesn’t need a lot of piquancy, which can mask certain light and effervescent flavours in the broth.

Greens and herbs (plate): Clockwise: Lime, Basil, Mint, Culantro (aka Long Coriander or Ngo Gai) , Chili, Sprouts 

The lime just gives a fresh zing to your pho. Put a splash of it in your soup for that refreshing citrusy zest. On the other hand, basil gives it a rather earthy and spicy note. Of all the botanicals in phở , basil is easily one of the more distinct and easily recognizable ones as it is fairly ubiquitous. Then, you have regular mint, which gives it a mild spicy flavor. Actually, I was told that putting mint in phở  is a pretty Southern thing to do, so  you will find it more often on herb plates in Ho Chi Minh City and its surrounding environs.

One of my new discoveries is a Vietnamese herb called ngo gai or culantroI tried a sprig of it and the initial flavor is that soapy and kind of harsh taste of regular cilantro, but it really melded well with the rest of the soup. It also had a firmer texture, so if you chew it with the noodles, it gives phở  a little bit of a bite. Then of course, you have more sliced chili for the spice, and the sprouts is really just to add more bulk to the meal. Phở  is a peasant dish, after all, and the more weight it gives to hungry bellies, the better. Since rice noodles are quite expensive, they rely on ubiquitous mung bean sprouts to give the soup bowl more substance.

Fortunately, these come fresh and washed to your table with every order. There is really no use being shy: just dunk everything in there and savor each and every unique flavor profile and texture. It’s an interesting pursuit trying to find your own balance of flavours, but in my case, I just put literally everything in the bowl. The bowl of phở  then more than doubles in volume, making it a ginormous meal. So pro tip: if you think you’re that hungry, by all means, order a large, but with all these greens to fill you up, I’m pretty sure the medium is just fine.

Each soup dish has its own set of herbs, greens and additional ingredients. I’ve tried a gloriously and delightfully filling bowl of bun mam which they served with the abovementioned ingredients, but with the addition of spiral tendrils of some unknown plant AND a ton of finely sliced spirals of banana hearts. It was SO SO GOOD  and considering that was one of the first meals I had after landing in Saigon, that bowl of bun mam really set the tone for the rest of my Vietnam trip.

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What are your favorite Vietnamese dishes? Any tips on how to mix the seasonings to perfection? Please sound if in the comments. 

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