In Hue, Vietnam's former royal capital, it doesn't take a lot of money to dine like a king
Hue cuisine is often misrepresented as lavish dishes made from peacocks or phoenixes, reputedly served is the royal court. These recipes are imaginary. In reality, even at the most prestigious royal banquets dishes labelled "dragon" or "phoenix" were only steamed carps and braised chickens, decorated with foil fins, scales, tails, and coloured bamboo horns.
A meal in the royal palace could be as simple as that found on any commoner's dinner table, like fig salad and boiled vegetables, or river smelts braised in pepper and mint Emperor Thanh Thai's eldest sister was known to crave pickled shrimps, torn chua, which the grand princess shelled with her own fingers. Royal cookery put great emphasis on skillful preparation, not on superfluities. Perhaps that's why court cuisine continues to influence private kitchens and traditional family restaurants in Hue today.
Most traditional restaurants in Hue are frugal, and quite often nameless. They include street vendors. After his hunting excursions, Emperor Bao Dai (1925-1945) often enjoyed chicken congee from a street vendor's basket. Having recently had an opportunity to try the spare-ribs porridge at a nameless restaurant in the Thong Market area in An Ninh Ha Village on the outskirts of Hue, I understand the late monarch's proletarian delight
The restaurant rests at the foot of a flimsy wooden bridge, which crosses the Bach Yen (White Canary) Canal near Thong Market. The market was once known as Cung (Terminal) Market, since the canal ended here. Later, as Emperor Minh Mang (1820-1832) liked to come here to hunt canaries, the court connected fee Bach Yen Canal with the Citadel's Guard Canal to facilitate the royal barge trips.
The owner and cook shyly replied that she did not know her restaurant's name. She said that at times she overheard people call it O Gaiâ€™s (Miss Girl) Restaurant. This restaurant's location is convenient for workers and drivers in the mornings and afternoons. At just VND4.000 per bowl, in another era O Gaiâ€™s porridge would surely have pleased the palate of finicky royal guests. The broth bears the honest taste of meat and bone. The semi-clear, reddish porridge contains fried chilli sauce, tenderly cooked spare ribs and slices of boiled pork heart, green scallions, coriander, and barely steamed onion slices. Like other people cooking traditional Hue congee, O Gai adds lotus seeds from Tinh Tam Lake to enrich the dish's flavour.
Field duck congee is served at a frugal restaurant at 86 Bui Thi Xuan Street near the Lon Bridge. The congee here is cooked in the traditional way with scallions, lotus seeds and chilli. The taste is honest, yet the rich flavour of beef stock is replaced with the gamy taste of fresh field duck. Hue people eat their boiled duck with lettuce, mint, and especially with thinly sliced cucumbers, green bananas and figs. Thuan Restaurant is known for its dipping sauce, locally called nuoc leo - a mixture of bean sauce, duck broth, sugar, chilli, ginger and peanut puree that is boiled until thickened. After frying the congee and boiled duck here, a friend from the American embassy in Hanoi suggested that the owner bottle the sauce for export.
The dishes on the emperors' dining tables were very small, and the bowls in Hue's simple restaurants remain similarly humble. After the congee, guests will still have room for other local culinary specialties, like banh khoai, or egg ternpura crepes. This traditional and very popular crepe can be found everywhere in Hue. Banh khoai restaurants near the Thuong Tu Gate and in the Citadel have long been famous, but most have been over-modified. Only a few places, like a simple restaurant called Banh Khoai Ben Do Con, or the Sandbank's Crepe, at 88 Chi Lang Street in the Gia Hoi District, remain true to the old recipe.
A real banh khoai is small with a semi-browned outside and moist interior stuffed with fresh soft - water prawns, pork flank and crunchy bean sprouts. Most important of all is the dipping sauce. This restaurant's smooth nuoc leo is a good balance between sweet and salty, while the pureed pork liver and peanuts are not too strong. Besides the usual lettuce, mint and green fruits, Hue's green jalapenos are indispensable to banh khoai.
Also in Gia Hoi, turn right at the end of an alley at 42 Huynh Thuc Khang Street to a nameless banh canh (tapioca noodle soup) restaurant. It's a family-operated place with only a few staff, so service is slow. The restaurant, therefore, is popularly called Quan Ba Doi (Mrs. Bide's Restaurant). While the lantern-lit food stands near the Forbidden City's Hien Nhon Gate provide a wonderful ambiance for late night dining, none of these eateries serves genuine banh canh.
That Ba Doi's Restaurant serves the real thing is obvious just from watching the way the father rolls the flour patty, the mother slices it into noodles, and the shirtless son pestles the pork. The broth has the natural briny and aromatic flavour of shrimps. The noodle soup is served with crunchy fresh-water shrimps and ground pork pies. Salt, pepper, lime wedges, fried chilli paste, and chopped scallions stand on the tables as seasoning, although the broth already tastes wonderful. Guests rarely leave a drop of soup in their bowls at Ba Doi's Restaurant.
The best Hue beef and pork-hock noodle soup comes from street vendors, who work from dawn to early morning. In the evening one can enjoy a good bowl of this noodle soup at a street stand in front of 84 Mai Thuc Loan Street in the Citadel. Known as Mrs. Doa's Counter, this stand operates from after eight until almost midnight.
Unfortunately, very few restaurants still offer authentic beef noodle soup in Hue today. Somehow two key ingredients, lemongrass and shrimp paste, have been omitted in most restaurants. The large-sized noodles have also vanished. Newly added mint and bean sprouts also alter the distinct aroma of the broth.
These hot dishes represent just a few of the treasures of Hue's traditional cuisine. Clam-rice and the flour pies like beo (steamed flour cupcakes), nam (wrapped shrimp pies) and loc (tapioca and shrimp pies), for example, are part of the ancient capital's culinary heritage. Less than 30 cents per serving, these delicacies once graced the dining tables of kings and queens.
Vietnam Airlines operates daily flights from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to Hue.