On Vietnam's Independence Day last week, I met some new friends.
And I'm hoping to become better acquainted. I already know their names in Vietnamese and who they like to roll with. They have tons of better known mates, from the humble salat (lettuce) to húng quế (Asian basil), kinh giới (lemon balm) and ngò gai (sword-leaf coriander). This country's cuisine is of course rich and green in aromatic herbs, perhaps moreso in the south at the table (where phở comes with a generous side of herbs) but equally so in the market-places in the north.
The new ones I've alluded to just now are not common in Hanoi unless you are seated in a restaurant with a big southern spread before you, a dish from the Trảng Bàng district of Tây Ninh province. Thinly sliced boiled pork, fresh vermicelli noodles, strips of cucumber, pineapple, young banana, bean sprouts and a pickle of crinkle cut daikon and carrot are delivered to table in traditional receptacles, some on banana leaves, others on Bát Tràng pottery.
And garlands of herbal foliage are proferred on one knee by the rather sombre waitress.
All is gathered in the incredible dew-wetted rice paper from Tây Ninh, the most roller-friendly of its type, not prone to cracking nor needing water to moisten it before use. Malleable and resilient, it can be handled by the most inept hands to produce a tightly wound white pipe clogged with a superb mix of textures and tastes, finished off nicely with a dip in nước chấm.
But I must reveal all I know (not much) about these green leaves which are indeed flown in every two days from the south. Rau quế vị (pictured above right middle, a broad almost ovular leaf) is kind of aniseedy in flavour but I do not have an English translation. Rau nhái is a spindly small leafed herb with little detectable taste. Rau cóc reminded me of Australia's eucalypts to look at but is in fact from the ambarella tree, the leaves an excitingly tangy experience for the mouth. (see a picture of the latter two herbs here)
For me it's comforting to find herbs in Vietnam that I've never encountered before, to be reminded that there is so much of this country's cuisine to still be discovered. Region by region, it seems. Bit by bit.
Even herb by herb.
One serve trảng bàng rice paper rolls (serves two) - 100,000VND (USD$5.10, AUD$5.45)
Banh Trang Trang Banh
70 Pho Duc Chinh