After my trip down pizza lane the other day, you might think that I had given up on local food. This is definitely not the case. Staying in Hue, Vietnam for nine days has given me a chance to sample many of the local dishes as well as frequenting a variety of restaurants, except for those owned by large hotels or glitzy palaces. My only rule when travelling is to avoid these places. We have eaten very well. A short list of restaurants appears at the end of this post in case you ever find yourself spending time in this relaxed and refined city. Although only around 145 km north of Hôi An, via the dramatic Hải Vân Pass, the city of Hue has its own regional dishes, although in some instances, one could say they are the same, same, and not very different. The locals swear that they are only to be found in Hue!
When I’m craving something sweet, I start munching on Kẹo Đậu Phụng, a peanut and sesame brittle treat. This double layered version, with ample toffee between the layers is a firm winner and can be found in Hue’s Dong Ba Market for 15,000VRD/Au 88c a piece. There is just a hint of residual smoky flavour left from the open charcoal cooking. Versions of this snack are probably found all over Vietnam- some come in flat rounds, others in square blocks.
Each restaurant in Hue seems to have a different take on the local dish, bánh bèo. Bánh bèo (literally “water fern cake”) is a small steamed glutinous rice cake in the shape of a disc. It features a dimple in the center which is filled with savoury ingredients including chopped fresh shrimp, spring onions, mung bean paste, crispy fried shallots or dried pork crackling, with a side dressing of fish sauce and rice vinegar. The best version in Hue can be found at Hanh, a little restaurant down a small lane, where they served these snacks in little pottery dishes. To eat them, you add a teaspoon of the dressing, then scoop out the paste with a spoon, fold the parcel in half and slide it down in one mouthful.
The vegetarian version at Lien Hoa Restaurant came steamed on a plate and was not so exotic in presentation but still made a fine starter. Lien Hoa is packed with locals on the weekend so time your visit with this in mind. The menu is exciting, cheap and radically different. The main challenge is to not over order. I want it all!! Below, the little nem rán or vegetarian spring rolls, differ from the usual: these seem light and airy, as if made from flaky pastry and resemble little sausage rolls. The small grilled banana leaf parcels contain glutinous rice stuffed with a tasty bean paste. The hot sauces and chilli add another dimension to each mouthful.
After a few days wandering around Hue, you begin to notice the prominence of vegetarian restaurants in this city. The key word to look for above restaurant doorways is Chay. They are scattered throughout the city, on both sides of the Perfume River, to serve the locals who have a strong tradition of eating vegetarian food twice a month as part of their Buddhist belief. Another feature of the local cuisine that sets it apart from others in Vietnam is the smaller serving size and refined presentation. They can often be more spicy than other regional foods, though chilli concoctions are generally served on the side. It is still mild compared with Thai food.
Banh Khoai is a crunchy rice flour pancake, not unlike a taco, made bright yellow with turmeric and extra-crispy due to sugar and carbonated water in the batter. It is a smaller and thicker version of the Banh Xeo, the version found in Hôi An discussed in my post here. The rice flour mixture ( there are no eggs used) is cooked in a frypan with ample oil, then stuffed with shrimp and pork belly or sausage, then when the pancake is crispy and golden on the bottom, spring onions and bean sprouts are added to the top. It is then folded and left to drain. The Banh Khoai is served with an abundant serving of lettuce, cucumber, mint, rau ram, coriander, perilla and a small pickle, along as a peanut sauce that is dark and a little challenging, given the touch of pork liver. To eat, break the crispy pancake into edible chunks, add to your serving bowl, cover with lots of herbs and lettuce, and then add a little peanut sauce. Eat with chopsticks, making sure you get lots of mint, which is the main counterbalance to the fried morsel. It is possible to ask for the meaty elements to be removed when you order Banh Khoai. We had them with prawn at Hanh Restaurant.
The Vietnamese have embraced a few French staples: not only the ubiquitous baguette, which can be found all over the country and on every street stall, but my favourite little dessert, creme caramel. Kem Flan can be found in most restaurants throughout Hue and is very much a local food. The bakeries across the river near the citadel churn out mini tubs of them daily. I ate a double whammy plate full at Hanh restaurant. They are baked on the premises daily and come with a huge slurp of passionfruit on top.
A few restaurant recommendations. Each one offers something delightful and not necessarily the food.
- Hanh Restaurant. A great local restaurant with interesting local dishes and a very small but authentic menu. One English-speaking waiter will help show you how to assemble your dishes. 1 Phó Đức Chính, tp. Huế, Phú Hội
- Lien Hoa Vegetarian Restaurant, very busy with locals on the weekend, serving unusual and exciting vegetarian food. Đôn, Thiêh, 3 Lê Quý Đôn, Huế, Thua Thien Hue
- Zucca, the best restaurant in Hue. Great Pizza, pasta and fusion food. Cheap local beer and wine. See my review here.
- Risotto. Has a similar menu to Zucca but the food is disappointing. Free bruschetta seems to appeal to the crowds. Handy to the hotel precinct.
- Serene Shining Restaurant. 57/5 Nguyen Cong Tru street, Hue. This restaurant is attached to our hotel and makes lovely soups. The crab and lotus seed soup is very comforting after a long day. The staff are a happy crew and keen to assist with anything. This hotel is small, comfortable and the staff make you feel very much at home.
- Bo De Vegetarian restaurant. 11 Le Loi, Hue, Vietnam. Great eggplant dishes. Many things were unavailable during our last visit and I suspect the food comes from a bain marie. Close to the river at the Museum end of Le Loi.
- Lac Thien, 6 Dinh Hoang, Hue, Vietnam. On the Citadel side of the river and handy if you are strolling about in that older neighbourhood. Simple food, nothing special, except for the large extended family running the place and the 92 year old grandmother who still helps out.
A few good Links on Vietnamese Food
- Luke Nguyen’s guide to making Banh Khoai http://www.cookingchanneltv.com/recipes/luke-nguyen/hue-pancake-banh-khoai.html
- A fascinating guide to Vietnamese cooking, especially the charts based on Yin Yang principles. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnamese_cuisine
- And this amusing short clip. Open it and see why.