Very good source on Hue cuisine

Vietnam Heritage, March 2011, Advertorial

In culinary terms all Vietnam may be said to be like Julius Caesar’s Gaul, ‘tres partibus divisa est’ (divided into three parts). The food of the North is heavily influenced by that of Southern China. It is saltier than the rest and some might take heed it often makes heavy use of MSG for flavouring, especially in noodle soups (phở). Like the Cantonese, northerners eat a wide range of dishes and may be also said to eat ‘anything that has four legs except a table and anything that flies except an aeroplane’. The South prefers a sweeter taste and makes good use of coconut oil. It shows signs of its history with Chinese immigrant, French and even American influences. The centre is to some extent transitional but also makes a distinctively greater use of spices, especially chilis. It also famous for its side dishes, many of which have their accompanying sauces in which to dip.

 Having said this, each particular province, district and even town will have its own special dish, which is well worth seeking out by overseas visitor and native alike. Huế has so many local specialities that, with its own distinctive preparation and presentation styles, it may be classified as a genre on its own. Indeed, the reader from abroad may have seen restaurants announcing themselves as Huế and questioned what they might get that is different from the everyday Vietnamese fare they have been enjoying so far on their trip. Allow me to attempt to explain this and hopefully send some on their way to Huế cuisine devoteehood.
Firstly I need to explain that except for business or social reasons I seldom eat out. My wife is an excellent cook. The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach and I first met her when I strayed into her restaurant and first tasted Huế traditional food. I have been eating little else since that day fourteen years ago.
The greatest reason why Huế has evolved its own sub-branch of Vietnamese cuisine is that it was for centuries and indeed up until 1945 the imperial capital. In its highest form, Huế food is haute cuisine following the tradition of the Imperial Chinese court. At banquets, sumptuous feasts of around forty dishes had to be served up to the emperor. Each dish needs to be artistically presented. My wife herself is a dab hand at turning tomato skin into a decorative rose or using carrot rind to produce  the form of a dragon At this kind of a table you eat as much with your eyes as you do your stomach.
The second influencing factor is that Huế was and still is a great centre for Buddhism in Vietnam. Hence it is famed for its vegetarian dishes. To a Western eye it may seem strange that the vegetarian dishes all use vegetable matter, notably soya with colourings, to simulate meat dishes such as beef, duck and chicken. So cleverly is it done that it is perfectly possible to fool outsiders that are eating meat dishes.
But it is the Huế traditional foods that one will mostly discover when dining at a restaurant that boasts of the ‘brand Huế’. This is the fruit of centuries of folk living in the shadow of the Huế citadel vying with each other to produce dishes that would impress an emperor and it bears the attentiveness to artistic arrangement and the importance of colour at the table that was intrinsic to dining at the court.
Cố Đô is aptly named. As you enter there is a decorative screen and as you round it you immediately feel as if you have been ushered in to the Imperial Court itself. The staff are dressed in garb of former times with the waitresses particularly decorative in royal purple áo dàis. There are wooden panels with country scenes in the Chinese style on the walls as well as traditional musical instruments. A mural of the Huế Citadel adorns one whole section. Blue faience jars sit on traditional wooden cabinets and further adding to the ambience is a relaxing aquarium stocked with coi carp. For those who would like a souvenir, a glass casing houses replica court clothing and headwear. This is reasonably priced. For example a Huế nón lá (conical hat) goes for five US dollars. A backdrop of softly playing, often classical Vietnamese music further aids the appetite.

I sit down with my wife and eleven-year-old daughter to order. It is hard to translate some of the names of the dishes into English, as the menu reflects. For example, some of the dishes famously make use of rice flour to produce milky, slightly sweet, pasta-type food. Made into little cups with shredded shrimp, this produces bánh bèo to be dipped in nước mắm (fish sauce), beloved of my daughter and of which we order three portions. This is translated as ‘steamed cake’, which is not quiet apt. However, everything on the menu has a photo alongside so even the most ingenous foreigner cannot go far wrong.
We also order another rice-and-shrimp dish. This you unwrap from environmently friendly banana-leaf packaging and is uncannily like the Italian dish lasagne both in its layer form and its delicious taste. To round the rice flour dishes we order bánh ít ram, savoury rice dumplings which come with a bowl of raw garlic and colourful little red peppers – unlike in, say, Thai food, the hot-spice element comes separate, to be administered according to personal levels of  pyretic tolerance.
I hope you have enjoyed this brief eulogy of Huế cuisine. ‘The proof of the rice cake is’, of course, as they say, ‘in the eating’. I have introduced you to one but your eyes will meet plenty of great Huế dining places on your travels. Do not hesitate to try at least one and make sure the Ancient Capital herself is a key stopover on your iterinary, if only for the benefit of your palate.
* With the technical assistance of Truong Thi Mai. February 2011

By Ritch Pickens*
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