The spice must flow

(No.3, Vol.4, Apr-May 2014 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Mussel rice
Photo: Y Nhac

Discovering the secret
ingredient in Hue’s
signature dish

The people of Hue eat as if learning lessons on life. They’ve got to taste it all: salty, bland, sour, spicy, sweet, and nutty. They disrelish no flavour and even take pleasure in two flavours that most of the world fears, spicy and bitter. In the gardens of the North, bitter melon is grown. But there they just use the red melon and stuff it with meat to make a stew, whereas the green melon is used only to rub children’s fevered brows. Yet the people of Hue like to use the bitter melon when it is still green. To cook a soup, water from a boiling pot must be poured over the bitter melon before it is dropped in, so as to ensure its bitterness. And then there’s the crushing of raw bitter melon to make a salad, which is fantastically bitter. One day, when the train stopped at Lang Co Station, I saw boletus mushrooms sold so cheap that it was as if they were giving them away for nothing. I ebulliently purchased an entire basket as a gift for my friend in Danang. Boletus mushroom porridge is ever so delicious, but only the people of Hue noisily slurp down the porridge with praise, whereas my Danang drinking buddies all abstain from it, because they cannot stand its bitterness. As it turns out, we may be separated merely by the Hai Van Pass, but the way in which Hue people eat and drink is just that peculiar!
But the strangest thing is Hue people’s custom of eating food so spicy that I, myself, cannot fathom why it is so. The Hue people have sufficient linguistic tones for describing spicy flavours that include all sensations—mouth-burning hot, tongue-rending hot, deafening to the nose hot, tear-letting hot, sweating hot, deafening-to-the-ears hot, and brain-deafening hot. It can be said that the people of Hue begin their daily menu with a bowl of dreadfully spicy beef noodles. Thereafter follows a day that’s spicy ‘all the way up to the eyes and nose’ that finishes with the cry ‘Compote (che) to eat, anyone?’—a saccharine cup before bedtime.
Allow me to introduce a day of ‘Heaven’s torturously (spicy) bliss’ for Hue people. I’ll start with mussel rice. Hue dishes like beef noodles and tripe porridge have now become commonplace throughout the country (despite losing their original spicy character). Only this Hue dish of mussel rice doesn’t exist anywhere else. Hanoi and Saigon also have restaurants with mussel rice. I’ve tried them, but they’re all finely sliced oyster. Where’s the mussels?
First of all, I’ll speak about the rice. Vietnamese people, however their rice is eaten, must always eat it hot. Only with mussel rice is it imperative that the rice is cool. It seems as if the Hue people want to express the notion that in life nothing should be discarded, so they present a cool dish of rice with little speckled mussels that render anticipation in those who cook this food called ‘mussel rice.’ Later on, in Hue, people additionally displayed a dish of mussel noodles that uses noodles instead of cool rice. I really detest such ways of sundry innovation. Moreover, the people of Hue (in the past, but not nowadays) are quite adamant about their culinary standpoint. I think that, on the issue of taste, conservatism is a cultural factor that is extremely important to preserve heritage. For me, a specialty dish resembles a cultural relic that must appear exactly as it did in ancient times, and all contrivances to improve upon them all bear a destructive character that merely fabricates fakes.
Allow me to continue this tale of mussel rice. Of the mussels in Hue, the tastiest are islet mussels. For this reason, the mound that emerges to occupy the eminently noble position of ‘Azure Dragon on the Left’ [A geomancy term for an auspicious land formation] from the Classic Book of Changes (Yijing, Vietnamese: Dich Kinh) as part of the capital citadel’s architecture, is referred to colloquially as ‘Con Hen’ (Mussel Islet). The bottom of the river around the islet has a deep layer of mud, which is a fertile environment for mussels. The remarkable thing about the mussels is that, despite lacking arms and legs, when the weather changes and causes the current to flow powerfully, they can dive deep down to the bottom of the mud in order to avoid being swept away. The people on the islet, who make their trade by scooping up the mussels, every year hold a ceremony to worship mussels in the seventh month. On the boisterous bannered ferryboats, the beat of the drums echoes far. People boil the mussels and then bring them out to the river to regale in large baskets. They remove the shells and take just the meat of the mussels to measure out into bowls and sell to people who make mussel rice.

‘If you talk like that, then what’s there left of Hue?!’

This mussel meat is the chief flavour of mussel rice. It is stir-fried and accompanied by cellophane noodles, dried bamboo shoots, and finely shredded pork. The third ingredient is fresh vegetables. It may be just a pinch, but these fresh vegetables are made of banana stems or banana buds that are sliced into thin strips and mixed with mint, star fruit, and finely cut fragrant herbs. Sometimes, the order calls for yellow marigold petals that look fresh to the eyes and add a fragrance of their own.
The broth used to boil mussels is ladled out from a steaming pot with a ladle made from a fine coconut shell. The water is poured to fill a bowl that has it all, including cold rice, stir-fried mussels, fresh vegetables, and the addition of all sorts of colourful flavours. The mussel broth has ground ginger added and is a murky white. Indeed, there’s an utmost infatuation with that murky colour. To eat mussel rice and complain that the broth is murky would be ludicrous!
The set of colours in mussel rice is the most sophisticated among all beneath the skies. Here’s a list of the spices that I have observed in one shoulder pole of mussel rice—surely it can be considered ideal: 1) chilli sauce, 2) colourful chilli and chilli pickled in fish sauce, 3) fresh shredded pork, 4) crumbled rice paper, 5) roasted salt, 6) coarsely ground peanuts roasted in lard, 7) roasted sesame, 8) crispy roasted pigskin, 9) lard and lard cracklings, and 10) monosodium glutamate. Everything is stored in bottlenecked glass jars and pots displayed in baskets. The aunties who sell mussel rice take it out with a small poon ladle. Their hands nimbly take a little bit of everything as if sifting holy water.
The fragrance redolent throughout these people’s lives is the smell of dried shredded pork, the aromatic scent of which rises straight to the brain and the spiciness of which draws tears. Those enthused with mussel rice in their blood are not just satisfied with the dish’s ready-made spiciness and further demand the addition of a fresh hot pepper to bite on and exclaim ‘fiery hot!’ Tears pour down with effusive sweat in small beads into the bowl of rice, and yet they slurp, gasp and ejaculate, ‘Tasty! Delicious!’ When travelling afar, its recollection is compounded to the point of rending strands of hair. To have lived abroad and then fly out to Hue in order to eat, by any means, a bowl of mussel rice to one’s heart’s content is…just like that — oh heavens, Hue!
I recall once, on a grey rainy afternoon in November, I was sitting eating mussel rice at a friend’s house on Hang Me Street. I had just come back from the West. Throughout the two weeks, I stayed in the hall for a writers’ congress. Every meal had nothing but meats, butter, and cheese to the point that I was dismayed. For many days, I just brought a bundle of fruit back to my room and ate it in lieu of a meal. For many weeks, I didn’t have a single grain of rice in my belly. When I heard the peddling of mussel rice, I was stirred down to my gums. That was the first time that I ate a bowl of mussel rice with the entirety of my soul. Seeing that the sister selling her wares had to put so many things in my little bowl, I felt pity for her and asked:
‘How much do you profit that you must go to such exaction? You just need three or four things. Wouldn’t that save you the effort?’ She looked at me with a pair of uncanny, irate eyes, ‘If you talk like that, then what’s there left of Hue?!’
She shouldered her wares away, her frame frail and slender, her ao dai black and over worn, her conical hat tattered; yet the voice with which she peddled her wares was resounding. At that moment, I finally discovered a fifteenth flavour; that is fire. Indeed, a nurturing hearth fire that fosters throughout the wintery rain, abidingly following after the footsteps of men.
The article is from the book Độc Đáo Ẩm Thực Huế (The Unique Cuisine of Hue), complied by Nguyen Nha, Thong Tan Publishing House, 2011

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