A person can eat so very well in the Vietnamese city of Hue. Located in the center of the long, narrow country, between the Perfume River and the South China Sea, it served as the country’s capital until 1945, and is still known as the Imperial City. Hue was also the site of some of the most destructive and mind-changing battles of the Vietnam War (known locally as the American War). With such a rich history, the city claims several distinctive dishes — from small and delicate creations originally created to please the appetites of Nguyen feudal lords, emperors (and their hundreds of wives) — to lusty, fiery street-level soups and sausages with complex, explosive and satisfying flavors. Here are the dishes I saw, and ate again and again, on a recent visit to Hue.
Finely ground beef and pork, plus shredded pork skin and fat, garlic, sugar and fish sauce are formed into sausages around stalks of lemongrass, grilled over charcoal and set in front of diners. This is serve with half-moons of rice paper (for wrapping around the meat), to which you add sliced lettuce, cucumbers and trai va (a green fig unique to the region), lightly pickled strings of carrot and green papaya, cold rice vermicelli and a pile of herbs. Then, it’s basically grip and dip: Hold the whole package securely and pull out the lemongrass skewer, then dip it into a chunky, mild-yet-complex hoisin-based sauce that includes both peanuts and peanut butter, fermented beans, sesame seeds, shrimp paste, garlic and shallots. Add chiles to taste. Many restaurants’ menus offer nem lui, along with a selection of banh, spring rolls and maybe a grilled meat and vermicelli dish. There is a particularly fresh and tasty version of nem lui available at Tai Phu restaurant (located at the corner of Dien Bien Phu and Nguyen Hue streets).
Bun Bo Hue
Have you noticed that even people who’d be hard-pressed to find Vietnam on a map can now make a knowing, correctly pronounced reference to pho? That is, of course, a good development, reflecting a growing awareness and appreciation of Vietnamese cuisine. It’s time for everyone to learn about another soup, the equally delicious but very different Bun Bo Hue (called simply Bun Bo locally), which features round rice noodles, as opposed to pho’s flat ones, mixed into a stock made from beef and/or pork bones, flavored with lemongrass, annatto seeds, ginger, fermented shrimp paste, sugar and chiles. Cubes of congealed pig blood, called huyet, float alongside slices of beef or pork shank and/or knuckles — with mung bean sprouts, lime wedges, green and white onions, sliced banana blossoms, chile paste and fistfuls of rau ram (Vietnamese coriander), mint and sawtooth herb are offered alongside.
Like many of the dishes in this list, Bun Bo Hue is ubiquitous in and around city, where many, many homes double as shops and restaurants: business in the front, family in the back. That being said, there’s a very satisfying and hearty version, augmented with crab balls, served at the food stalls in the center of Dong Ba Market, a very good one at the comfortable (read: full-sized chairs and tables) Quan So I (19 Ly Thuong Kiet), and I happened across a woman selling an excellent variation that included noodles and penne pasta, oddly enough, on the sidewalk outside a storefront on Tran Thuc Nhan street between Phan Boi Chau and Nguyen Hue streets.
The name means “clam rice” — a rather understated label for a chaotic bowl of contrasting colors, tastes and textures: rice or rice noodles, tender stir-fried clams, crisp pork cracklings, peanuts, bean sprouts, julienned green apples, glass noodles, fried shallots and herbs, with a bowl of hot clam broth that you can add as you wish. This dish is easily found walking or motoring around Hue, especially along the three-block Truong Dinh Street, and at the corner of Nguyen Thai Hoc and Ba Trieu, where a vendor sets up shop outdoors under a series of tarps strung with lights.
This crunchy rice flour crepe, made bright yellow with a healthy shake of turmeric and extra-crispy due to sugar and carbonated water in the batter, is a smaller, thicker version of the banh xeo you see in the southern part of Vietnam (and on the menus of many Vietnamese restaurants in the States). The crepe is pan-fried and typically stuffed with shrimp and pork belly or sausage (cha lua) that have been cooked in garlic, along with scallions, bean sprouts and, as in the case of the ones sold at Dong Ba Market, a quail egg. The crepe is served with hoisin-based dipping sauce, lettuce, cucumbers, trai va, mint, rau ram, cilantro, perilla and sometimes star fruit are served alongside. Because it’s slightly more portable than nem lui and its accompaniments, you’ll find banh khoai for sale at street carts and sit-down restaurants, like Hanh (11 Pho Duc Chinh).
Banh Loc Tran
Banh loc tran is stuffed with a more generous portion of shrimp and pork than banh loc goi, then boiled rather than steamed, and served under a dense layer of chopped green onions and crispy fried shallots, along with nuoc mam pha, to be spooned over the top.
These are steamed rice cakes, about the size of a silver dollar, that come five pieces to an order, topped with dried shrimp, pork cracklings, shallots and herbs and served with nuoc mam pha. They’re cooked in one of two vessels which determine their full name and shape: Banh beo chen are steamed and served in small ceramic saucers (chen) while Banh beo dia are cooked in a slightly larger metal form that resembles a hard-boiled egg platter, and served on a larger plate.
Banh Loc Goi
Banh loc is a typical Hue snack in which a tapioca flour-based dough is stuffed with caramelized shrimp and pork. In this version, called Banh Loc Goi, the dumpling is wrapped and tied in lightly oiled banana leaves, and the packets are tied together in pairs, using banana leaf strips, and steamed. Open the parcel, remove the cake to a plate and spoon over some nuoc mam pha, a combination of fish sauce, vinegar, shrimp stock, sugar, water and fresh chiles. There is a lovely open-air restaurant, Bánh O Le (104/17/9 Kim Long Street) just outside the city center, that specializes in banh, the name for the various steamed and fried savory cakes endemic to Hue.
Yet another delicious steamed rice savory cake, this time flat, with a mixture of fried ground shrimp, pork and scallions pressed into the surface before it’s wrapped in banana leaves, steamed and served with nuoc mam pha.
Banh Ram It
A patty of super-crunchy deep-fried stick rice paste, topped with a steamed sticky rice paste dumpling filled and topped with a crispy mixture of stir-fried shrimp and pork. This was one of many dishes that arrived unbidden as I took a seat on a tiny stool at Dong Ba Market and answered in the affirmative when a woman behind a glass cabinet asked me, “Soup?”
Trai Va Salad
As mentioned, Hue is home to a particular green fig, trai va, that’s not grown in any other part of the country or outside of it. It has a lightly sweet flavor and a pronounced astringent quality that makes it an excellent foil for fatty meats and spicy dips. The fruit is boiled to soften it, then peeled, thinly sliced and served on the garnish plate for nem lui, or as a component of a salad, to be dressed with Hue hoisin sauce or a dab of salty fermented shrimp paste. Nha Hang Gio Que restaurant, which backs up to a rice paddy on Thanh Duong Street in Thanh Thuy Chanh village, serves just such a salad.