Vietnamese balm or Kinh Giới is a popular herb used in Vietnamese cuisine. It is commonly added to fresh Vietnamese rolls, meat dishes, soups, and herb platters. The herb brightens heavy food and has a strong minty, citrusy flavor - it tastes like basil with hints of lemon.
If you can't get your hands on Vietnamese balm then you're going to need an alternative. We've created a list of our top recommended Vietnamese balm substitutes so that you can finish any recipe without the original ingredient.
What can I use to replace Vietnamese balm?
The best substitutes for Vietnamese balm are lemon basil or Thai basil. While they're not a perfect match, they share similar flavor notes and won't be out of place in most recipes. If you’re in a pinch, then try sweet basil combined with lemon thyme or lemongrass. Vietnamese coriander or perilla leaves will provide a different flavor for those who don’t enjoy Vietnamese balm.
1. Lemon basil
Lemon basil is a handy backup option for Vietnamese balm thanks to its fresh lemon flavor. Its clean, herbaceous, and sweet notes are similar although there is an additional anise undertone that differs a little.
Use lemon basil to add flavor to soup, curries, stews, or to brighten a sauce. It also tastes delicious raw and can be added fresh to salads, pork rolls, or as an accompaniment to the main dish.
Of course, this herb can also be used in other cuisines, so it'll never go to waste. For example, add lemon basil to a traditional pesto to add a depth of flavor. It's also a popular ingredient in Indonesian and Persian cookery.
2. Thai basil
Thai basil shares some similar flavor notes to Vietnamese balm and is commonly used in Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. It is best added to food like stir-fries towards the end of cooking to help tame its aggressive spicy flavor.
Compared to Vietnamese balm, Thai basil lacks lemon flavor and brings added anise notes, but the flavors still work well in many Asian dishes. To avoid overwhelming your food with unexpected flavors, we suggest using half the quantity of Thai basil. Wherever possible, taste test and add more if needed.
3. Sweet basil
Sweet basil is the regular variety that’s sold in the herb section of most supermarkets. It is a common addition to pesto but that doesn't have to be the only use for it! Basil has a sweet, mild flavor with a hint of pepper and mint.
The noticeable difference with this herb is the lack of lemon flavor. You may want to toss in some lemon thyme or lemongrass to solve this problem if the dish you're cooking is suitable. If you're using it as a garnish, served raw, then use the basil on its own. Keep in mind this herb can quickly overwhelm your food so use it in moderation.
4. Vietnamese coriander
Vietnamese coriander goes by a range of names including Vietnamese mint, hot mint, rau răm, praew leaf, laksa leaf, and Persicaria odorata. It has a hot minty and peppery flavor that has similar uses in cooking to regular coriander. This herb is often added to salads and rice paper rolls or served with a dipping sauce and lettuce alongside heavier food like spring rolls.
Although Vietnamese coriander has a different flavor profile to Vietnamese balm, they can be used in many similar applications. Use this alternative if you want something with less lemon flavor and more peppery, spiciness in your food.
5. Perilla leaves
If you're partial to Korean cuisine, you may have stumbled onto perilla leaves in the past. They provide an anise taste with a basil and mint undertone. Perilla leaves can be cooked or chopped up and eaten raw as a tasty side. This option won't taste like Vietnamese balm; it's a great option if you don't like its taste and want something that will work well in recipes that call for Vietnamese balm.
Fast facts about Vietnamese balm
- Alternative names include Kinh Giới, Vietnamese lemon balm, Vietnamese lemon mint, Crested Late-summer Mint, or Cockscomb Mint. It is a part of the Lamiaceae family and has the scientific name Elsholtzia ciliata.
- It is an excellent complement to bun cha, pho, poultry, fish, and beef dishes and adds a hint of lemon flavor to tea.
- The Vietnamese balm plant is native to Southeast Asia and is used for culinary and ornamental purposes. It produces vibrant green, saw-edged leaves and looks like a large version of mint leaf.
- This herb is easy to grow and will flourish in warm climates. It can also be grown in areas with mild winters as a perennial. The leaves provide a refreshing fragrance which is quite pleasant.
If you live in the United States or other parts of the world outside of Asia you may find some of the ingredients on this list difficult to source. We suggest taking a trip to a nearby Asian grocer as the most likely place to find them. Another option, if you're going to use these herbs often, is to start growing your own at home. If space is limited, invest in a few pots and you'll be good to go.
To replace Vietnamese balm in cooking two excellent options are lemon basil or Thai basil. You'll get the basil-like flavor with the essential lemon notes to brighten any food its combined with.
What recipe are you looking to use Vietnamese balm in? Please let us know in the comments below.