Vietnamese cuisine is famous for its complex and diverse flavor profiles. One of the significant contributors to these flavors is the use of various herbs and spices. Vietnamese spices are not only used to add taste but also have medicinal properties. In this article, we will explore some of the most common spices in Vietnam used in cooking, their health benefits, and how to use them in your cooking.
I - Vietnamese spices & herbs profiles
Vietnamese cuisine is known for its use of five essential spices, namely salty, sweet, sour, spicy, and bitter, which are combined to create a delightful range of flavors in their dishes. To further enhance these flavors, a variety of sauces, herbs, and spice blends are used. Most Vietnamese dishes incorporate processed spices like salt, sugar, soup powder, MSG, chili sauce, ketchup, mustard, and butter, among others. However, traditional Vietnamese cuisine still relies heavily on natural spices, especially in their specialty dishes. These spices can be broadly categorized into two main categories based on their origin: those derived from plants and those derived from animals.
1 - Vietnamese spices of vegetable origin
Common spices in Vietnam - Source: Dienmayxanh
Vietnamese spices of vegetable origin come from various plant parts such as leaves, stems, roots, and fruits. Here are some of the most commonly used vegetable-originated spices in Vietnam:
- Basil (Ocimum basilum): With its spicy and hot taste, basil is often eaten raw with animal meat, blood pudding, pork intestines, and also used as an herbal medicine to prevent diseases and repel mosquitoes.
- Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum): This fragrant plant is commonly eaten with pho or pho rolls.
- Coriander (Eryngium foetidum): The leaves have a pleasant aroma and are cooked with fish in the pot of sour soup to reduce the fishy smell.
- Lemongrass: Spicy, fragrant, and warm, lemongrass is often used in chicken dishes.
- Perilla (frutescens): With its characteristic aroma and spicy flavor, perilla is often eaten with snails or porridge.
- Dill (Anethum graveolens): A typical Vietnamese spice used in fish soups and sour soups to make the dish less fishy.
- Purslane (Portulaca olearacea): This slightly sour and salty-tasting spice is cooked with shrimp or sautéed with garlic.
- Oregano (Elsholtzia ciliata): This very fragrant, warm, and spicy spice has a sedative, anti-allergic, and hypothermic effect. It is often eaten with beef vermicelli, vermicelli with shrimp paste, or rice paper rolls with boiled meat.
- Lettuce (Houttuynia cordata): This cool spice is rich in vitamins and minerals and is best served with protein-rich dishes such as red meat, drinks, and fried foods.
- Chrysanthemum (coronarium): This Vietnamese spice is often cooked with shrimp or fish or put in a hot pot.
- Laksa leaves (Persicaria odorata): These leaves have a special aroma and hot spicy taste and are best eaten with balut.
- Green onions: With its aroma, sweet taste, and beautiful color, green onions are used in many Vietnamese dishes, such as pho, grilled oysters with onion fat, and fried eggs.
- Peppermint: Fragrant, spicy, and cool because it contains Menthol essential oil.
Leaves such as figs, polyscias fruticosa are used in salads, meanwhile leaves of ginger, lemon, bay leaves, are often eaten with cattle meat or chopped into dishes.
- Ginger (Zingiber officinale): This is one of the most famous Vietnamese spices that is often used as a marinate and enhances the warm & spicy spice for braised dishes.
- Galangal root (Alpinia officinarum): This spicy aromatic spice is used with fish to make it taste more delicious and reduce fishiness.
- Garlic (Allium sativum): This spicy spice can be used in dipping sauces including garlic, chili, sugar, etc., or mixed with stir-fried vegetables to enhance the aroma.
- Lemongrass (Cymbopogon): Spicy and hot, lemongrass is often found in Hue beef noodle soup.
- Turmeric (Curcuma longa): This spicy and bitter spice is often used to make curry powder or added to seafood dishes to eliminate fishy odors.
- Pepper: This spicy spice is used with stir-fried or braised dishes, marinated meat, fish, or made into spring rolls.
- Coriander seeds: Warm, fragrant, help aperitif, digest food, detoxify and reduce fishy substances.
- Doi seeds (michelia tonkinensis): Sweet aroma mixed with a slight pungent, spicy taste, creating a very unique feature of the culinary culture of the Northwest region.
- Spices in Vietnam in fruit form: Lemon, grapefruit, chili, cardamom, green pineapple, green banana, sour star fruit, tamarind, doc fruit (colocasia gigantea), sau fruit (dracontomelon), illicium verum, Mac Khen (Zanthoxylum myriacanthum),...
2 - Vietnamese spices of animal origin
Vietnamese sauces and condiments - Source: Dienmayxanh
While many spices used in Vietnamese cooking are of plant origin, there are also several spices that come from animals.
- Vietnamese fish sauce: One of the most popular spices of animal origin in Vietnam is fish sauce. Made from fermented fish, it is a staple ingredient in many Vietnamese dishes. It has a salty and savory taste, and it is often used as a dipping sauce for meats or as a seasoning for soups and stir-fried dishes.
- Vietnamese shrimp paste: Another common spice of animal origin is shrimp paste. It is made by fermenting ground shrimp with salt and is used as a seasoning in various Vietnamese dishes, such as soups, stews, and dipping sauces. It has a pungent aroma and a slightly sweet and salty taste.
- Vietnamese crab paste: One lesser-known spice of animal origin used in Vietnamese cuisine is crab paste. It is made by fermenting crab meat with salt and rice bran, which gives it a unique flavor and aroma. It is commonly used as a dip for fresh vegetables or as a seasoning for soups.
3 - Vietnamese spices map by regions
A list of Vietnamese food spices - Source: @Vietnamtrips
Vietnamese spices also vary by region, with each region having its own unique flavors and ingredients.
- Spices list from Northern mountainous region: rosemary, anise, mac khen (zanthoxylum rhetsa), and the smell of smoke.
+ Northwest region: Mắc Khén, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, chili and pepper.
+ Northeast region: Dổi seeds (michelia tonkinensis), mac mat (clausena indica), lemongrass, chili, galangal, turmeric, ginger,…
- Spices of the Northern Delta and Hanoi: galangal, me (fermented rice) and soy sauce are the three main flavors; ginger, basil, powdered basil, xuong song leaves (blumea lanceolaria), dracontomelon, doc fruit , very little chili and very less sugar.
+ Hanoi: dill, xuong song leaves, mugwort, galangal, turmeric, dracontomelon, tai chua (garcinia cowa), pepper, garlic, chili, lemongrass, lemon leaves,…
+ Red River Delta: piper lolot leaves, mac cop fruit (pyrus granulosa), chay fruit (artocarpus tonkinensis), galangal, lemongrass, chili, pepper,…
+ Northern coastal area: pepper, lemongrass, chili, galangal, fermented rice, shrimp paste, dill, lemon leaves, mugwort,…
- Vietnamese spices of the Central region:
+ Central Highlands: é leaves (lemon basil), lemongrass, ginger, salt, chili, wild pepper, long pepper, turmeric,…
+ North Central (Nghe An, Ha Tinh, Quang Binh): pepper, garlic, fish sauce, salt, chili, soy sauce, chives, dried tangerine peels and turmeric, lemon leaves, marjoram leaves, kieu (pickled scallion heads), molasses, ruoc be (salted shredded fried meat), fermented fish sauce. The food is usually grilled before being braised, salty or honey.
+ Hue: chili, lemongrass, galangal, and scallops. Braised with pepper.
+ Da Nang: ginger, chives, lots of chili, curry and fermented fish sauce are the main ones. Braised with chives.
- Vietnamese spices of the South:
+ Saigon: green onions, fried onions, tamarind, light fish sauce and lots of sugar. Deep fried and braised.
+ Southeast: garlic, pepper, ginger, lemongrass, chili, kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce, salt,…
+ Southwest: water mimosa, tamarind, rattan, coconut water, palmyra (palm) sugar, many kinds of fish sauce, soy sauce. Braised with fish sauce, deep fried and grilled, boiled, or hot pot of flowers.
II - How to use Vietnamese spices & condiments in cooking?
Common Vietnamese spices list - Source: saveur
1 - Common Vietnamese spices in popular dishes
This is one of the most popular and used spices in Vietnam, which can be found in any dish, from fried, grilled to steamed or soup. It is a spice that creates the taste, aroma and color of dishes, with effects such as good for bones and joints, anti-inflammatory, strengthening the immune system,… Top most famous dishes of Vietnam that cannot be without green onions are Vietnamese noodle soups, in addition to many delicious dishes that use it such as grilled onion fat, onion porridge, fried rice,...
- Fish sauce - a umami bomb on top Vietnamese spices
In Vietnamese cuisine, fish sauce is an indispensable Vietnamese seasoning sauce and plays a particularly important role. It is not only the dipping sauce appearing in Vietnamese family meals, but also the seasoning in most dishes. The book “Dai Viet Su Ki Toan Thu” has recorded fish sauce from 997, thus can be seen, the locals have known to make and use this Vietnamese spice from the 10th century or earlier.
Vietnamese seasoning sauce - Source: Thao Le
Today, fish sauce is brewed and distilled from many sorts of fresh fish in which the type made from anchovy is one of the most popular spices in Vietnam. The purity of fish sauce is calculated according to the level of protein. The higher the protein, the more flavorful and delicious the fish sauce is. Some famous fish sauce brands: Phu Quoc fish sauce, Nha Trang 584, Thanh Ha Fish Sauce, Cat Hai Ong Sao fish sauce,...
For thousands of years, garlic has become one of the indispensable Vietnamese spices in every family's kitchen, and is present in most dishes. Garlic is known to help treat colds, reduce bad cholesterol, regulate blood sugar and prevent cancer. It is often found in fried dishes in Vietnamese meals, such as stir-fried morning glory with garlic, beef with garlic, french fries, fried chicken feet with garlic and fish sauce, etc. One of the places with the most delicious and unique garlic flavor in Vietnam is Ly Son island, so if you have the opportunity to visit, don't forget to enjoy garlic dishes there.
Chili is one of the 5 main spices in Vietnam, spicy, stimulating taste, and providing vitamins, a small amount of protein and fiber. This is a spice that helps add flavor and color to dishes, or simply because of personal preference for its spiciness. There are some delicious chili dishes that you can try when coming to Vietnam such as chili tofu salad, grilled fish with chili sauce, stir-fried beef with chili,... In addition, this Vietnamese spice is also used in marinating dishes, making pickles, or mixed with fish sauce and other Vietnamese spices to make dipping sauces for more flavorful dishes.
Ginger is a popular spice in Asian cuisine in general and Vietnam in particular, it has many great effects. According to scientific studies, ginger root contains many medicinal substances that are beneficial in weight loss, cough treatment, reducing symptoms of nausea, pain, supporting the immune system and digestion,... In cooking, fresh ginger and ginger powder are often combined with cold ingredients such as seafood to eliminate fishy odors and enhance the flavor of grilled, braised or steamed dishes, and especially confectionery. The outstanding Vietnamese specialties with the participation of ginger are floating cake, ginger jam, ginger sticky rice sweet soup,...
Vinegar is a Vietnamese spice with a mild sour taste, often added to foods or sauces, sometimes even to pickled vegetables. When cooking vegetable soup or boiling vegetables, adding a little vinegar will help retain vitamin C in vegetables, promote the dissolution of minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, iron… Vietnamese dishes that you can try to have a taste of vinegar are beef dipped in vinegar, grilled Mackerel fish with vinegar, carrot salad with white radish mixed with vinegar oil, and so on.
- Black Pepper
Not only helps to create aroma for dishes, pepper also brings a natural pungent flavor, making the dish more delicious. While ground pepper can be marinated or added directly to a dish, ground pepper is often used green and is suitable for stews with fish or meat. One of the largest and densest pepper growing spots in Vietnam is Phu Quoc Island, so if you come there, you can enjoy many delicious dishes with authentic Vietnamese spice such as beef stew with green pepper, salmon braised, and so on.
Source: Hello Saigon
Dill is one of the most popular Vietnamese spices that is very familiar in many northern dishes because it is both delicious and overpowering the fishy smell. In addition to the use of spices in cuisine, dill also has many benefits in disease prevention, indigestion, vomiting, atherosclerosis,… This is an indispensable spice in a Hanoi's specialty - Cha Ca La Vong (fermented grill fish stir with green onion & dill), imbued with spices mixed with the aroma of dill to create an unforgettable taste.
Lemongrass is widely used as a spice in Vietnam, has a lemon-like taste and strong aroma, can be dried and powdered or used fresh. It is generally used in curries, suitable for poultry, fish and seafood dishes. There are some delicious dishes with this Vietnamese seasoning, such as grilled chicken wings with lemongrass and chili, fried clams, braised pork leg, fried snails with lemongrass and chili, and so on.
This is one of the most popular Vietnamese spices, containing many nutrients such as phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, potassium sodium, vitamins A, B, C and K that are good in cooking and for health. Coriander is often used in soups, water dishes such as vermicelli, noodles, pho or in salads such as carrot salad, papaya salad, etc. In particular, many people also use this plant during the Lunar New Year to cook fragrant bath water, cleanse all the “bad luck” of the old year, and keep the body fragrant.
For a long time, this has been known as one of the most indispensable Vietnamese spices in every kitchen, not only bringing a unique flavor and aroma to dishes but also creating a beautiful golden color. Moreover, turmeric offers many amazing health benefits thanks to their antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, helping in erasing scars. It is often used to cook dishes with smelly odor such as fish soup, grilled salmon, turmeric vermicelli with snakehead fish, braised chicken, or in curries.
- Vietnamese Five Spice Powder
Five Spice Powder is a blend of five different spices commonly used in Vietnamese cuisine. It is made up of cinnamon, fennel seed, star anise, Szechuan peppercorns, and cloves. This spice blend is known for its aromatic and pungent flavor, which complements a wide range of Vietnamese dishes.
In Vietnamese cooking, Five Spice Powder is typically used to flavor meat dishes such as grilled pork, roasted duck, and braised beef. It can also be added to stir-fried vegetables or used as a seasoning for fried rice. The blend of spices in Five Spice Powder adds depth and complexity to Vietnamese dishes, making them more flavorful and enjoyable.
2 - Unique Vietnamese spices and herbs for cooking
Used as a Vietnamese seasoning powder - Source: Internet
- Mac mat leaves
Mac mat is a very famous Vietnamese spice of the mountain, which can use both fruit and young leaves to make seasoning, in which the aroma is concentrated mainly on the leaves. They are often used on skewers interspersed with grilled meat or roasted duck, bringing a unique and attractive aroma in the cold winter days in the Northwest highlands. Meanwhile, the mac mat fruit, in addition to its characteristic aroma, has a sweet and sour taste, can be used with braised fish, meat, stewed with pork feet, or pickled with bamboo shoots, best eaten with rice or sticky rice.
- Cham Cheo - a typical Vietnamese condiment in northern region
This is one of the oldest Vietnamese spices, belonging to the Thai ethnic group with “Cham” in Thai means dipping dish, “Cheo” means blending the aroma of spices. As the name suggests, it is made from the main ingredients such as doi seeds, salt, mac khen, anchovies, garlic, chili, basil, herbs, lemongrass, etc. The basic cham cheo making method that people still apply is to roast garlic, mac Khen and chili peppers for aroma and crispiness while reducing the pungent taste, retaining the spicy taste and natural aroma. All the ingredients will then be pounded, mixed into a viscous dipping sauce used to dip everything from vegetables, meat to fruits such as plums, loquats,...
- Mac Khen
This is one of the most special & typical Vietnamese spices that exists in the form of clustered, small, dark brown seeds, belonging to a wild plant of the anise family, with aromatic essential oils. It is a legendary spice of the people of the Northwest region, likened to forest pepper but not as spicy. When tasting, you will feel the numbness at the tip of the tongue, then the extremely attractive aroma like anise combined with tangerine peel. After harvesting the fresh fruit, the local ethnic people often dry it or hang it on the kitchen floor to dry naturally, then when used, it is roasted on the stove for 2-3 minutes to wake up the aroma and then pound or puree. This spice is suitable for marinating grilled, fried dishes, or adding a little to dipping sauces to make a delicious and unforgettable taste.
- Dổi seeds
Along with Mac Khen, Doi seed is among top typical Vietnamese spices of the Northwest mountains, considered the "black gold" here due to its extremely characteristic flavor. Glutinous Doi seeds are very fragrant, especially after drying, used as a seasoning for many dishes, marinated with meats or combined with other spices to make dipping sauces. Doi seeds are most delicious and fragrant when they are grilled on a charcoal stove, after getting puffy, they can be pounded to keep their crispiness. Wild Doi seeds are extremely fragrant, but are usually only used in moderation because too much will make the dish bitter and pungent to the nose, very difficult to eat.
- Ca cuong essential oil (Lethocerus Indicus)
In Hanoi's bun thang, bun cha, and banh cuon, there is often this unique Vietnamese spice, with a pungent taste that is easy to recognize. Ca Cuong is a species that grows in water, in deep fields, lakes, rivers and creeks, capable of secreting from the sacs under the wings a very spicy odor. Currently this essential oil is very rare, but it is still an integral part of traditional Hanoi dishes such as cha ca or banh chung (chung cake), giving these dishes the famous flavor of the Hanoi culinary art.
- Fermented rice
It is a traditional Vietnamese spice with a characteristic sharp sour taste and aroma, usually made from cold rice or vermicelli. Fermented rice is rich in protein, vitamins and lactic acid, which not only supports dishes to become more delicious, but also has health benefits. As one of the 5 basic flavors of Vietnamese cuisine, fermented rice always asserts its distinct value compared to other spices in Vietnam. A list of dishes that use fermented rice includes braised dishes, hot pot, grilled pork rolls, sour soup, field crab hotpot, Linh fish sour soup, braised eel with galangal and fermented rice,...
III - Health Benefits of Vietnamese spices and herbs
Marinated dishes - Source: Behance
In addition to their delicious flavor, spices also offer a range of health benefits. Here are some of the key ones:
- Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties: Many Vietnamese herbs & spices, including turmeric and star anise, contain antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds that can help protect against chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease.
- Effects on digestion and metabolism: Spices like lemongrass and galangal are known for their ability to aid digestion and improve metabolism. They can also help reduce bloating and improve gut health.
- Role in traditional medicine practices: Vietnamese spices have long been used in traditional medicine practices in Vietnam for their various health benefits. For example, lemongrass is used as a natural remedy for fever and stomach aches, while turmeric is used to treat inflammation and pain.
Vietnamese cuisine is known for its use of a diverse range of spices that add depth, flavor, and health benefits to its dishes. Whether you're a seasoned chef or a beginner cook, adding Vietnamese spices to your cooking can help take your dishes to the next level. Try incorporating some of the spices mentioned in this article into your own cooking, and see how they can enhance the flavor and nutritional value of your meals.