The Cuisine of Hue
As the capital of Vietnam for 143 years, Hue had plenty of time to refine its cuisine to imperial standards. As a result, the city is today regarded as having the finest food in all Vietnam; many of the country’s most popular dishes originate here, and we could hardly wait to check them out.
Attention! Although we were able to track down some great meals, it must be said that the overall food scene in Hue disappointed us deeply. This city has given itself over to tourism of the worst kind, and genuinely good local restaurants are in short supply, especially in the old town. If you like burgers and pizza, you’ll be fine, but otherwise be prepared for a frustrating hunt.
That warning doesn’t just apply to food. Hue was the sketchiest city which we had visited in Vietnam. Has anyone ever approached you, asking if you’d like to have marijuana? Crack? Sex? Well, if that’s something you’ve been missing in your human experience, visit Hue. By nature, I’m a tolerant person, and slow to anger. But this is one of the only places in the world where I’ve truly lost my temper. Once, after a “friendly motorbike driver” had failed to tempt me with the usual offer of drink and drugs, he suggested sex with young girls. I lost it. He motored away, laughing, as I screamed. And there was nothing I could do, except hate Hue.
Anyway, here’s the cuisine of Hue, which proves that even the most evil cities have their good side.
Bánh Bột Lọc Trần
Chewy tapioca dumplings filled with shrimp and pork, bánh bột lọc trần originates from the days of Hue’s imperial glory. The name means “clear flour cake”, alluding to the translucence of the tapioca wrapping. Given their soft appearance, the dumplings’ crunchiness comes as a surprise; they’re usually filled with a full, grilled shrimp, left in its shell.
Bánh Ram Ít
Alright, alright, we’ll give you a second to stop snickering. I seriously doubt there’s ever been an English-speaker ordering bánh ram ít, who has been able to resist laughing about its name. These are dumplings of shrimp and pork, served atop discs of glutinous rice, which have been deep-fried to a golden brown. The result is strange: crispy, chewy, savory and a little sweet. Easy to ram down.
We enjoyed both bánh bột lọc trần and bánh ram ít at Nhà Hàng Hoa Viên. [Location]
Bún Bò Huế
We had discovered bún bò huế in our very first days in Vietnam, and ordered it many times in Saigon. So we were really excited to taste this dish in the city for which it’s named. Truthfully, it was about the same… not that this is a bad thing. With its sweet and sour broth, hints of lemongrass, thick noodles, pork slices and cubes of congealed pig blood, this is a dish which we never weary of.
This is more a sub-branch of Hue’s cuisine, rather than a meal itself, but we thought it warranted inclusion. This city has an outsized proportion of practicing Buddhists, many of whom are vegetarian, and a lot of restaurants cater to them. Our favorite restaurant in the city, hands-down, was one such place. Quán Ăn Ngọc Hân is itself somehow connected to a Buddhist temple, if its brown-robed servers were any indication. [Location]
Known as the “Hue Pancake”, these crispy cakes of fried rice flour are topped with the usual suspects (shrimp and pork) and then folded over into a kind of taco, and served with a rich dipping sauce. We enjoyed them at the famous family-run restaurant Lạc Thiện, near the citadel. After we had ordered beers, the owner treated us to a “kung-fu” bottle-opening ceremony with one of his home-made openers… which he then he presented to us as a personalized, unique gift. [Location]
We’re not huge fans of shellfish, so the thought of eating cơm hến (“clam rice”) wasn’t exactly getting our tastebuds fired up. But our tastebuds were in for a surprise. The clams atop this pile of rice were teensy, and the flavor was superb. In fact, if I hadn’t known it in advance, I would have never guessed this dish contained clams at all. This turned out to be one of our favorite meals in Hue. [Location]