Hue, a medium sized city in central Vietnam, was the home of generations of Vietnamese emperors. The legend goes that one of the emperors was a very picky eater. He demanded at least 15 unique dishes be prepared and served for each dinner… and no dish could be repeated in the space of a year. That means that the chefs of Hue had to create more than 5,000 new dishes every year. Talk about Master Chefs!
We’ve been fully enjoying the culinary delights of Hue. The food is is lighter and brighter than the food of Ha Noi. In chilly Ha Noi, the food is largely hot and hearty, whereas the food in Hue befits a milder climate. More vegetables, less soup. Dishes served at room temperature rather than steaming. It’s a dining delight.
Here are some of our current favourites in Hue:
I’m starting with our new favourite food here… com hen. In Vietnamese, “com” means rice and “hen” means clams. So, Rice clams. But, there is so much more to com hen than just the rice and the clams. There are herbs and lettuces mixed in with fried onions, pieces of pork crackling, roasted peanuts and slivers of tangy radish. Com hen is served with a bowl of clam broth on the side. You can sip the broth or use it to flavour your dish. I prefer very little broth in my com hen as it can make the crispy greens soggy, but Andy adds lots of broth to his dish. You simply cannot go wrong with com hen.
Diem n’oung is one of those dishes that we discovered by accident. We were at a local pub (I’m using the term “pub” here loosely… it’s a collection of plastic tables on the street) and we saw a group at the next table order this. I am the master of pointing at dishes and asking what they are and that’s how we stumbled on diem n’uong. This is bite sized pieces of grilled pork served with leaves of lettuce and a spicy / salty dipping sauce. You wrap a bite of pork in a lettuce leaf and dip it into the sauce. It’s salty and meaty and perfect with a cold Huda beer.
See those ingredients above? That’s the makings of the dipping sauce for diem n’uong. There’s a branch of fresh peppercorns, a pile of chopped fresh chilis and salt and a slice of lime. You pull off a few peppercorns, squeeze in the lime juice and mix it all about. It’s divine.
Here it is… my new favourite green vegetable. Whenever I’m planning a meal I ask Andy, “What should we have that’s green?” I blame my mother, but I’m obsessed with eating lots of green vegetables. I think that for the rest of our lives, Andy’s answer to my question will be rau m’uong xao toi… also knowns as mustard greens stir fried with garlic and chilis. Oh. My. God. This is so good. It’s hearty and hot, but still light enough to eat on a sweltering night in Hue. If you try this in Vietnam make sure you also buy a banh my (French bread stick) to sop up all the glorious garlicy juices.
More pork. I’m very sorry to all you pork haters out there, but Vietnamese people eat a lot of pork. Therefore, when in Vietnam, we enjoy the pig! This is bun thit n’uong. In Vietnamese “n’uong” means grilled and “bun” means rice noodles. So, grilled pork with rice noodles. Slices of fatty chargrilled pork are served over silky rice noodles along with a riot of herbs and lettuces and a slick of peanut sauce. The pork is hot, the noodles are cool and the whole dish is a savoury pork-fest.
Nem lui is my kind of food. Skewers of grilled pork mince served alongside huge platters of cucumber slices, herbs, pickled carrots and radishes and dry rice paper rolls… it’s a make-your-own extravaganza! I love food that I can personalise and nem lui fits the bill perfectly. It’s served with a spicy peanut dipping sauce.
Last, but certainly not least, is bahn khoai. This dish is also called Happy Pancake. Theories about the name vary, but I think it’s because a bright yellow pancake in the shape of a smile can’t help but make you happy. The tender pork, crunchy prawns and steamed bean sprouts don’t hurt either! The pancake is made yellow by the addition of tumeric to the batter. We’ve actually had some pretty crappy versions of this dish in Hue. Many people fry the pancake in way too much oil. We finally found a banh khoai that had great ingredients used in the filling and wasn’t too greasy. Worth looking around for!
To be honest, we’ve not had a BAD dish in all of Vietnam. Having said that, the food in Hue has proven to be very much to our tastes. We’ll keep munching and I’ll report back if I find any new Hue treats!