Come back to Hue if you so yearn
Back to the Perfume River
For her water runs deep
She loves you still
Back to the Ngu Mountains
For the birds have flown home
Waiting for you still.
Hours before dawn, the smell of food permeates the air. Walking along Nguyen Binh Khiem Street with my husband, my sister-in-law and her husband, I see people cooking, their stoves roaring hot, their pots billowing with steam.
Women rush past us toward the market carrying baskets filled with xoi hap, a sticky rice with fresh corn and mung bean paste. A nutty fragrance, combined with muoi me--a condiment of roasted sesame seeds, salt and sugar--trails behind them. It's the smell of my childhood, the smell of breakfast and morning.
I feel so good--excited, really--to be in a place I've heard about all my life but have never seen until now. I was born in Saigon and lived there the first half of my life before fleeing to America, but I never dared venture beyond my hometown. The war restricted travel as it did almost everything else.
In Vietnam, Hue (pronounced "way") is considered a culinary mecca, known not only for fabulous street foods such as bun bo, banh beo and banh khoa--foods that I've always adored--but for its refined royal cuisine as well. Finally, my dreams have come true: I will get to savor the best of both here where it all began, here along the banks of Song Huong, the Perfume River.
Our first stop is at Quan Ba Do, or Mrs. Red's Restaurant. Nguyen Thi Mai, the owner, welcomes us into an unadorned storefront. A handful of tables and low stools furnish the dining room. A small, dark kitchen consists of one wood-fired stove with a large steamer on top. A tall basket filled with hundreds of tiny ramekins sits nearby. In the back, a couple of children frolic and others sleep on the divan as their mothers tend to the kitchen. Here, under this one roof, family life and restaurant work go hand in hand, as they have for generations.
"My mother used to do this before I got into it," says Nguyen with an eager look, stirring the batter in a large ceramic vat.
Around here, Nguyen is considered master of the beloved local favorites banh beo--steamed rice cakes resembling beo, a round, flat-leafed weed that grows in ponds and waterways around Hue--and banh la, a similar rice cake stuffed with shrimp and wrapped in fragrant dong leaves.
"To make great banh beo, you have to start with good bot gao [rice flour]. That's the real secret," she says in a clipped, abrupt, sing-song but exceedingly emphatic manner that is uniquely Hue.
Although frail-looking and in her 50s, Nguyen begins every morning by hauling to a nearby mill two large pails of rice that she's soaked the day before. "I take my rice to Uncle Nam's because he's the best," she explains. "He grinds with uniform pressure and speed, so the paste always comes out clean, velvety and smooth."
To prepare the batter, she mixes the rice paste with water (preferably rainwater), then strains it to remove impurities. Since both of her specialties rely on this basic batter, it must be perfect.
"Come, have a seat, I'll make you some banh beo. They're the best you'll ever have," she says, gesturing with pride.
"Thanks, but I'd rather stand and watch," I tell her, thinking: How could I miss watching my very favorite dish being made the traditional way? Nguyen packs the steamer with as many tiny dishes as can fit. She stirs the batter, one moment moving left, another right, sloshing sounds thumping and echoing from the huge vat. She fills the ladle and drizzles two tablespoons, not a drop more, into each tiny dish.
"Each banh beo should fit perfectly in the mouth, not so thick and intrusive that it throws off the balance of the toppings," she explains while putting the lid back on the steamer. "Sit down, it will be done in a few seconds."
I comply, but my eyes never leave the steamer. Watching her cook makes me think about how I used to help my mother make this dish. Mom made it basically the same way, but she enriched with a little coconut milk. In South Vietnam, cooks often use coconuts--which are plentiful there--to give more body to batters, soups and stews.
Sometimes, when Mom didn't have enough round dishes, she'd use porcelain spoons instead. To me, the oval shape looks nicer and the higher puffed-up edges help keep the sauce in place better.
Here in Hue, the banh beo is eaten from the dish in which it is steamed. In other regions they're removed from the spoons and served on a plate. At Quan Ba Do, each person is served a tray with about dozen dishes, all brushed with scallion oil and garnished with shredded shrimp.
To eat, I drizzle on nuoc cham dipping sauce and use a long-handled teaspoon--not chopsticks, as Nguyen reminds me--to lift both the banh beo and the sauce. The rice cake is soft and succulent. The shrimp, freshly caught, has a sweet, almost buttery flavor.
"This sauce is so delicate and delicious," I cry. "Is it the basic nuoc cham recipe?"
"Oh no, it's entirely different," explains Nguyen. "People in Hue are very particular. In the south, they make one basic nuoc cham and use it for everything. Here we have a different version for each dish. This one is made with shrimp stock."
No wonder it's so delicate. Unlike the southern version I'm used to making, it has no garlic and only a hint of fish sauce, which makes it far less pungent. The shrimp stock gives it a delightful ocean flavor. It's a perfect match for the gentle flavors of banh beo.
I look at my husband, my sister-in-law and her husband, curious to see whether they're also excited by my discovery. But they're totally adrift in their own banh beo worlds, their mouths chewing and chomping, their legs wiggling.
The next day, after a full day climbing tombs and temples, I realize we haven't eaten bun bo Hue, Vietnam's second most beloved noodle dish after pho bo or beef noodle soup.
"Can you take us to the best bun bo Hue restaurant?" I ask my taxicab driver, licking my lips as if I can already taste the rice vermicelli soup.
But in the driver's rearview mirror, I can see her hesitation. She looks down at her watch, perplexed. Did I say something wrong, I wonder?
"Bun bo at 3:30 in the afternoon?" she asks. "You can't eat bun bo at this time. Plus, even if you can find it, it's not any good."
Is this sense that each dish must be eaten only at a certain time of day part of the nguoi Hue tinh Hue or "Hue mentality" I've heard about since my childhood? The people here worship tradition, more so I think than those, perhaps, from the south where I come from.
"Uh, we just came in from California," I apologetically explain. "We're only here for a few days and we're really hungry for bun bo. Can you please just go ahead and take us to a place that's still open?"
I look for her eyes in the mirror, anxious for a reply. She nods. "I'll take you but it's not going to be any good," she warns. "By this time of day the broth has lost all its flavor." I slump back into my seat.
Hue is unlike any other city I've visited since I first returned to Vietnam several years ago. Except for the downtown area and Dong Ba market, much of the city is quaint and calm. I'm intrigued by the towering cay phuong vi, or "flame" trees, the ancient rooftops, the lotus flower-covered lakes and ponds, the boats drifting along the Perfume River. On sunny days you can catch young girls dressed in silky white ao dais peddling their bicycles home from school, the panels of their dresses fluttering like butterflies.
But today it is raining. The taxi sloshes through streets that look like shallow rivers, cutting through heavy sheets of rain. Even the windshield wipers want to surrender. Heavy rains are typical of Hue this time of year. Maybe it's the weather, but there is a solemnity about Hue I can't quite describe.
When we arrive at the restaurant, a small house with a cart in the front, an older lady and her daughter rush out to greet us. They point us to a table near the large steaming pot so we can keep warm.
We take our seats and watch as our bun bo is assembled. The lady carefully places fresh rice noodles in a bowl, then tops them with beef and slices of pork leg. Her daughter then takes over, ladling steaming broth on top and garnishing it with chopped scallions, cilantro and rau ram, the spicy Vietnamese herb also called polygonum.
When our bowls arrive, I can smell the lemony, gingery aroma of lemon grass and chiles along with mam ruoc, or shrimp paste. Though it's used throughout Vietnam, ruoc is especially revered in this central region. Made from fermented shrimp and salt, it gives foods a distinctive saltiness. The flavor it imparts is more rounded and bold than even the ubiquitous fish sauce.
I squeeze some lime and add freshly chopped chiles to my steaming bowl. The broth soothes me instantly. The fat noodles, translucent at the edges, white in the center, are succulent, velvety and bouncy all at once. I've eaten bun bo Hue lots of times in the U.S., but here it's especially good because of the yeast-like flavor of freshly made noodles.
With chopsticks and spoon moving in unison, I slurp, chew, slurp, chew. From our table I can see our driver waiting in the taxi and reading the newspaper, perhaps still wondering why anyone would bother with bun bo at this time of day.
Even in Hue, it's not easy to meet someone who knows royal cooking--mainly because there hasn't been an emperor to cook for in more than 50 years and many who were privy to that culinary art have passed on.
Still, there's a group of chefs and restaurateurs determined to keep the cuisine alive. Nguyen Thi Hanh, the executive chef of the Huong Giang Hotel, has been fascinated with the com vua (royal cuisine) since she was a child. Inspired by an aunt who spent 30 years inside the palace kitchen, Hanh studied under her and worked at several restaurants before ending up in one of Hue's most prestigious kitchens.
These days she oversees the entire hotel food operation, but her favorite job remains the royal dinners she cooks every night. Although no king or queen ever shows up--just well-dressed hotel guests--she believes that the feasts are important.
"It will be very sad if our royal cuisine gets forgotten," says Nguyen, as she finishes assembling a platter of pa^tes and terrines artfully arranged to resemble a phoenix. "It will be like losing a big part of our history, our tradition."
Indeed, food is central to Hue's history. Behind the walls of the Royal Citadel, 13 emperors of the Nguyen dynasty reigned from the early 1800s to the mid-1900s. They monarchs made their city a center not only of government, politics and culture but of culinary advancement as well.
The Nguyen kings, who considered themselves the Sons of Heaven, lived and ate luxuriously. Legend has it that their rice was hand-selected, kernel by kernel, and cooked in special earthenware pots made by natives of the citadel villages. Chopsticks were said to be made of a wood that can detect poison. Cooks were often sent to scour the countryside for exotic ingredients. And contests and festivals were often held to encourage culinary creativity and excitement.
According to Tran Kiem Doan, a Hue-born author who writes passionately about the cooking of his hometown, the monarchs played a major role in the development of Hue cuisine. "Once a dish gets inside thuong thien [palace kitchen], even if it's street food by origin, it comes out completely transformed--refined and beautified."
Nguyen says her aunt helped prepare many of those dishes, adding that a meal for the king sometimes included as many as 50 items.
"It took days for dozens of cooks to prepare such a feast. Because the king wanted so many dishes, my aunt said, the portion and size of the foods had to be small, almost bite-size. So much of the royal cuisine evolved into tiny foods that are either rolled or wrapped and served with meticulously hand-carved fruits and vegetables," explains Nguyen, pointing to a decorated pineapple covered with skewers of spring rolls, its hollowed out middle lit by a candle. "Many were cooked and served in tiny tight-covered pots."
Tonight's dinner is similar to the ones her aunt often described--only on a smaller scale. On the counter against the wall, the finished dishes are laid out, ready to be served. There is grilled duck with lime leaves, Hue scented rice wrapped in lotus leaves, steamed chicken with black mushrooms, grilled freshwater lobsters, Hue chicken salad fragrant with rau ram, and sweet mung bean soup. She takes a spoon and dips into the dessert. "It's good, not too sweet," she proclaims, then gestures for me to taste the food.
I do, and my mouth bursts with joy. Each dish is an amazing juxtaposition of sweet, salty, spicy and sour flavors.
"Hue palate and presentation are much more demanding," Nguyen explains. "The seasonings must be carefully balanced and the presentation, well, it must be fit for kings." In fact, the only real difference between the cooking of Hue and other regions lies in its execution, not ingredients.
She walks over and smells the duck. Satisfied, she moves on, carefully inspecting the rest, fixing a few garnishes along the way. Soon the servers, all clad in silk mandarin tunics, converge in the kitchen to pick up the food.
She stands back to let them pass, her hands touching her smiling face, her eyes following them as they all disappear into the dining room.
The next morning, I will climb aboard a train heading south. I have loved my visit and have eaten all the dishes that I vowed I would. Back in my hotel room, I realize Hue has done something to me, something affecting and lingering. While the foods of this region are infinitely memorable, I feel the most compelling flavor is not something I can taste with my mouth.
It is the spirit of Hue itself.
Nowhere have I seen a people so proud, so determined, so passionate despite decades of war and economic hardship. Everything I've heard about the mentality of Hue still rings true.
They love their land, their music and poetry, and certainly their food. They see hope in despair, beauty beyond hardship, forgiveness in destruction.
They speak endlessly of sunsets, of boats sailing down Song Huong, of sun-drenched rice fields, even as I'm sitting inside their homes, roofs leaking from the pouring rain.
They talk passionately about food, about recipes that touched their lives, and yet I know as soon as I leave, some will wonder where their next meal will come from.
Tonight, looking out my hotel room window, I see the mighty Perfume River overflowing its banks. The moon is full, its reflection shimmering in the rain. The nearby bridge is flooded but I spot men and women, all hidden under raincoats and ponchos, dragging their motorcycles and bicycles across the water.
In the distance I can hear the band playing in the downstairs lounge:
Come back to Hue if you so yearn
Back to the Perfume River
For her water runs deep
She loves you still . . . .
Pham is chef and owner of Lemon Grass Restaurant and Cafes in Sacramento and author of "The Best of Vietnamese and Thai Cooking" (Prima, 1996). She may be reached by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Hoang Mai, Le Nhu Quyen and Ngo Xuan Minh, members of the Sacramento Hue community, and New World Hotel Chef Nguyen Thi Ngoc Tinh in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam assisted in the research of this story.
HUE BEEF VERMICELLI SOUP (Bun Bo Hue)
4 pounds pork or beef bones
2 pounds pork leg or pork sirloin (off top of leg)
3 tablespoons fish sauce
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon shrimp paste
2 lemon grass stalks, cut into 3-inch pieces and bruised with back of knife
2 tablespoons oil
1 tablespoon minced shallot
2 tablespoons minced lemon grass
2 tablespoons paprika
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper or to taste
14 ounces dried rice vermicelli, about 1/8 inch thick
1 pound sirloin steak, thinly sliced
1/2 red onion, sliced paper thin
1/3 cup chopped cilantro
1/3 cup chopped green onions
1 cup rau ram (Vietnamese coriander leaves)
6 lime wedges
5 Thai bird chiles, chopped
In this recipe, it's extremely important to float the prepared aromatics in the soup just before serving to give the broth its fragrance. Make sure the paprika and cayenne, which add color and flavor, don't get scorched.
Bring bones and pork to boil in large pot with water to cover. Drain and rinse well. Fill pot with 16 cups water and add bones and pork. Bring to boil, skimming surface as needed. Add fish sauce, salt, sugar, shrimp paste and lemon grass stalks. Reduce heat and simmer until meat is tender, about 1 1/2 hours.
Remove pork and set aside to cool. Discard bones. Strain broth into another saucepan and bring to simmer. Add more water if needed to bring to 10 cups liquid. Wrap cooled meat with plastic wrap until ready to slice.
Heat oil in skillet over medium heat and add shallot and minced lemon grass. Stir until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Add paprika and cayenne and remove from heat immediately. Stir mixture into broth.
Soak rice vermicelli in water to cover 30 minutes to plump noodles. Drain. Cook in plenty of boiling water until soft but firm, about 15 minutes. Drain and rinse.
Slice cooked pork. Return Broth to boil.
Place about 1 1/2 cups Noodles in each soup bowl. Place few slices beef in slotted spoon and blanch in boiling broth. Arrange sliced beef and pork on noodles in each bowl and ladle broth on top.
Garnish with red onion slices, cilantro, green onions and rau ram. Serve lime wedges and chopped chiles on side.
8 servings. Each serving without garnishes:
365 calories; 637 mg sodium; 55 mg cholesterol; 10 grams fat; 46 grams carbohydrates; 23 grams protein; 1.27 grams fiber.
SCALLION OIL (Mo Hanh) (ITS A SNAP)
In Vietnam, this versatile condiment is used to garnish everything from rice and noodles to soups, salads and grilled meats. It's such a flavor enhancer that I always have a small jar handy in my kitchen.
1/2 cup oil
5 green onions, thinly sliced
Heat oil in small pan over moderate heat. When hot, add green onions and cook 30 seconds. Immediately remove from heat and transfer to small bowl. Refrigerate 10 minutes to maintain bright green color. Remove from refrigerator and set aside until ready to serve. If stored in refrigerator, bring to room temperature before using.
2/3 cup. Each 1-tablespoon serving:
81 calories; 0 sodium; 0 cholesterol; 9 grams fat; 0 carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.02 gram fiber.
HUE FISH DIPPING SAUCE (Nuoc Cham Banh Beo) (IT'S A SNAP)
This is a variation of nuoc cham, a dipping sauce that appears at every Vietnamese table and varies from region to region in Vietnam. This version, designed to enhance banh beo, may taste bland at first. When splashed on the rice cakes, however, it brings out delightful flavors.
1 cup hot shrimp stock or water
2 1/2 tablespoons light brown sugar or 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons fish sauce
4 to 5 Thai bird chiles, thinly sliced, or 2 serrano chiles, finely chopped, or to taste
Stir shrimp stock, sugar, fish sauce and chiles in small bowl until well blended. Sauce will keep up to 2 weeks refrigerated.
1 cup. Each 1-tablespoon serving:
12 calories; 86 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 3 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.03 gram fiber.
HUE CHICKEN SALAD (Ga Bop) (30 MINUTES OR LESS)
What gives this dish its unique, refreshing character is the generous amount of rau ram, a spicy Vietnamese herb. The amount called for here seems like a lot, but it's not!
2 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, each cut in 2 pieces lengthwise
1/2 teaspoon black pepper or to taste, lightly toasted in pan
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt or to taste
2 teaspoons sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons lime juice
1/3 cup thinly sliced red onion, rinsed
1 tablespoon oil
1/2 cup rau ram leaves or mint leaves
5 to 6 red lettuce leaves, rinsed and drained
Bring 1 quart salted water to boil. Add chicken and cook 3 minutes. Remove pot from heat and let chicken sit in hot water 5 minutes. Remove chicken from water and place in mixing bowl.
Shred chicken by hand into 1/4-inch-thick strips while still warm. Gently rub chicken strips with pepper, kosher salt and sugar. Add lime juice, onion, oil and rau ram and toss a few times.
Line plate with lettuce leaves and arrange chicken on top.
2 servings. Each serving:
283 calories; 1,673 mg sodium; 72 mg cholesterol; 17 grams fat; 8 grams carbohydrates; 24 grams protein; 0.16 gram fiber.
STEAMED RICE CAKES WITH SHRIMP (Banh Beo Tom Chay) (LOW-FAT COOKING)
The components of this pretty dish can be made in advance and the cakes can be reheated. Use regular rice flour, not sweet or glutinous. You will need a steamer, preferably a Chinese-style, two-tier aluminum or stainless steel steamer. You will also need two dozen Chinese-style shallow sauce dishes about 3 inches in diameter.
RICE CAKE BATTER
2 cups rice flour
2 cups cool water, plus 2 cups hot water
1 tablespoon oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 ounces cooked shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 tablespoon oil
1 shallot, finely minced
1/3 cup Scallion Oil (see recipe this page)
1 1/2 cups Hue Fish Dipping Sauce (see recipe this page)
RICE CAKE BATTER
Whisk together rice flour and 2 cups cool water in mixing bowl. Add 2 cups hot water, oil and salt while stirring. Set aside.
Pat shrimp dry. Pulse in food processor until finely shredded or mince by hand.
Heat oil in small nonstick pan over medium heat. When hot, add shallot and stir until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add shrimp and stir until dried and fragrant, 5 to 7 minutes. Sprinkle with pinch of salt. Set aside.
STEAMING AND ASSEMBLY
Fill steamer with water and bring to boil. Place sauce dishes on perforated tray and set on steamer. Heat dishes about 1 minute so rice cakes won't stick. Stir Rice Cake Batter. Ladle about 2 tablespoons Batter into each dish. Stir Batter frequently because it tends to separate quickly. Cover and steam until cooked, about 6 minutes, depending on thickness.
When rice cakes are cooked, remove lid from steamer and hold away from steamer so moisture in lid doesn't drip on cakes. Remove tray from steamer and set aside to cool.
Prepare next batch of rice cakes in same manner using second tray; there may be enough batter for more than 2 batches.
To remove each cake from dish, dip tip of knife in water and loosen around edges. Lift and place on platter in circle, with cakes slightly overlapping.
Garnish each cake with Shredded Shrimp and Scallion Oil. Drizzle with Nuoc Cham Dipping Sauce before eating.
Makes about 45 cakes. Each cake without Scallion Oil and dipping sauce:
35 calories; 87 mg sodium; 7 mg cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 6 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0 fiber.
FRAGRANT RICE WRAPPED IN LOTUS LEAVES (Com Sen)
In Hue, this rice is wrapped in fresh lotus leaves (either as neat packets or attractive pouches decorated with lotus flowers) or packed into small, pretty ceramic jars and steamed. This recipe calls for dried lotus leaves, which are much easier to find. They are 16 to 20 inches wide and are sold in plastic bags. Quality varies, so look for bags that have nice whole leaves. If you can't find lotus leaves, substitute banana leaves. If you use dried lotus seeds instead of canned, soak them in hot water for 30 minutes, boil them until soft, then drain. Use a light-colored soy sauce; I prefer Golden Mountain.
2 dried lotus leaves, plus extra for patching
4 small dried black mushrooms
2 tablespoons oil
2 tablespoons minced shallots
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
2 teaspoons light-colored soy sauce
1/3 cup (1/3-inch cubes) cooked pork or chicken breast
1/4 cup (1/3-inch cubes) cooked carrots
6 shrimp, boiled, peeled, deveined and cut into chunks
1 egg, scrambled and chopped, optional
2/3 cup canned lotus seeds, drained
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Pinch black pepper
3 cups cooked jasmine rice, separated and fluffed
2 green onions, thinly sliced
Soak lotus leaves in hot water at least 30 minutes. Rinse carefully several times, taking care not to tear. Set aside.
Soak mushrooms in hot water 30 minutes. Thinly slice and set aside.
Heat oil in nonstick pan over medium heat. Add shallots and garlic and stir until softened, about 1 minute. Add mushrooms and soy sauce and stir few times. Add pork, carrots, shrimp, egg, lotus seeds, 1/4 teaspoon salt or to taste, sugar and pepper and mix gently. Stir in rice and green onions. Remove from heat. Adjust seasonings if necessary.
Place lotus leaf with top green side facing up. Wipe dry. Patch any tears with smaller pieces of extra leaves. Place 1/2 rice in center of leaf. Neatly fold over edges to make thick packet 5 to 6 inches square. Turn over so it sits on folds. Stem area should be in center. Repeat to make 2nd packet.
Place rice packets on heat-proof dish and steam until thoroughly hot, about 20 minutes. Cut "X" into top with sharp pointed knife to open.
6 servings. Each serving:
208 calories; 184 mg sodium; 18 mg cholesterol; 6 grams fat; 32 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 0.21 gram fiber.
* Hue Beef Vermicelli Soup bowl, plate and chopsticks on the cover and wooden bowls holdong Hue chicken salad on this page from William-Sonoma.
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*Shrimp paste: Called ruoc in Vietnamese, kapi in Thai and blachan in Indonesian, shrimp paste is made from fermented shrimp and salt and is used to season soups, stews, stir-fries and curries. There are numerous brand names available. The Vietnamese prefer the wet purplish paste made in China and sold in jars under brands such as Lee Kum Kee. Kapi is a drier paste, sold in small plastic containers, and blachan comes in blocks. Both are generally toasted before they're used. The wet paste, however, is added directly to foods.
*Rice vermicelli: Some Asian grocery stores now carry up to a dozen brands of each style of rice noodles. For bun bo, look for brands such as Evergreen JiangXi or those with a sailboat logo. Made in China, they're packaged in colorful 14-ounce plastic bags. Though not marked, the vermicelli comes in different widths--small, medium and large. Buy the large ones for bun bo. When cooked, they're almost the size of spaghetti noodles.
*Rau ram: Often called Vietnamese cilantro or laksa leaf, rau ram is intensely aromatic with a strong, almost soapy taste. It is widely used in Vietnamese dishes, particularly to flavor fish, chicken, meats and salads. Its small, pointy green leaves have a faint paintbrush line of burgundy striping and its stems have a slightly pink tinge. Rau ram is available at Asian grocery stores and farmers' markets.