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17/11/2019 - 07:57

Making Hue a culinary capital Part 1: Unique cuisine brand

Looking at the tradition, Hue deserves to become the culinary capital of Vietnam. This aspiration can be fully realized if there is a strategy with specific tasks. How many books and newspapers have praised the special, sophisticated and delicate Hue cuisine! Everyone acknowledges that Hue deserves to be a culinary capital.

The royal dishes are not only delicious but also skillfully and beautifully presented. Photo: TNTH

Essence and elegance

Welcoming Australian guests to enjoy royal cuisine, early in the morning, elite culinary artist Ton Nu Thi Ha - owner of Tinh Gia Vien restaurant (Le Thanh Ton street, Hue City) prepared ingredients for shrimp balls on a kumquat branch.

Choosing to buy fresh greasy-back shrimps from Tam Giang lagoon, Mrs. Ha cleaned, squeezed dry and then pounded the shrimps. When the pestle sounded "boop, boop", it indicated that the shrimp were fine, sticky and crunchy. She stopped and added egg white, seasoning and crunchy fat pieces... and shaped into kumquat fruits. After steaming, each ball of shrimp is dipped in colored egg yolks, grilled on charcoal and then decorated by dangling on the kumquat branch, just like the real thing.

Ton Nu Thi Ha, the artisan, said that grilled shrimp rolls were cooked according to the formula of "The food of heaven", which was a royal dish, made elaborately and meticulously. This is also a dish that many diners admire when visiting Tinh Gia Vien. In addition to this dish, the delegation also enjoyed peacock spring rolls, phoenix pork roll, lotus rice, pork leg, pineapple shrimp balls...

In the restaurant’s garden, the royal dishes were not only delicious, they were also elaborately presented. Champagne, the visitor from Sydney felt everything was very delicious: “I admire your royal culinary culture with exquisite, well-presented dishes. They are so beautiful that I just want to keep looking at them.”

Tinh Gia Vien was opened in 1993 and was the place to introduce and promote the sophistication of Hue cuisine with important international and diplomatic delegations. The owner of the restaurant, Ton Nu Thi Ha, is the descendant of the royal family. She was taught the technique of cooking royal dishes by her aunts, who were wives of mandarins.

Royal dishes: Peacock spring rolls and phoenix pork rolls. Photo: TNTH

"Stay quiet and listen"

Each time coming to Hue, the Hanoi girl Nguyen Yen Phi would "scour" everywhere looking for the street food vendors in the alleys. For her, Hue street food has a strange attraction, more than the sophisticated dishes in luxury restaurants.

Beo cake (Fern-shaped cake), Nam Pho noodle soup in Xuan 68 street, mussels noodle in Con land, beef noodle, roasted spring rolls... wherever there’s a delicious dish recommended, she will be sure to come. Having studied and worked in the US for 10 years, this architect revealed that this popular eating and drinking habit is a unique and rare cultural feature that makes an unforgettable impression on her when coming to the ancient capital.

From the praise of the architect Yen Phi, I went to Nam Pho noodle soup shop of Mrs. Kim Loan at 179 Xuan 68 Street. In my eyes are the beloved carry baskets that remind me of my childhood when I used to sit and wait for them every day.

On the carry basket, the Nam Pho noodle soup pot was simmering on the fire, attractive with the white of the noodles mixed with the red of shrimp meat, the green color of onion leaves. Picking up a bowl of hot and thick soup with red brick color, I could taste the savoury broth, the shrimp balls, the richness of the noodles, and the spicy taste of the rich fish sauce.

This simple dish is meticulously prepared and quite time-consuming by Mrs. Loan. Also, from rice flour and tapioca, but instead of being knead and sliced like other types of noodles, the dough of Nam Pho noodle soup has to be steamed. When cooked just right, the dough would be beat well and whisked down towards the boiling water. The dough will come out creating long oblong shape. The shrimp rolls are fresh and the broth is also from boiling the shrimp, so it always has a natural sweetness.

Hue cuisine is always exquisite from processing to serving. Photo: MH

At the other end of Mrs. Loan's carry baskets are thin, tiny Beo cakes that are stacked on top of each other. The owner of the restaurant quickly prepared a plate of cakes, spreading shredded shrimp, fried onion, skin rind, and fish sauce with a few slices of green chili which looked very eye-catching and tasty.

Chewing each of the tiny, fragrant cakes, tasting the aroma of rice flour melting on the tip of the tongue, the sweet, salty taste of the shredded shrimp and the fish sauce entwined, I silently admire the past Hue women who thought of this elegant cake.

In order to have the right cake, the maker must be skillful and focus on each stage. All phases are done by Mrs. Loan herself, from choosing delicious dough, pouring cakes, shredding shrimp, to mixing fish sauce...

Mrs. Loan's Beo cakes look smaller and thinner than those of the other restaurants. The shredded shrimp is red and fresh. The fish sauce is cleverly mixed, soothing and sweet thanks to being cooked with shrimp shells.

The Nam Pho's noodle soup and Beo cake stall is a 100-year-old family heirloom and Mrs. Kim Loan is the third generation to inherit it from her mother and grandmother. From the age of 20, Mrs. Loan opened a home-based shop, now more than 30 years.

The shop is quite famous, not only with city residents but also with tourists from far away. Every day, Mrs. Loan's family makes cakes at 6am and starts selling at 1 p.m. The shop usually closes around 5 p.m. 

Ms. Loan shared: “I do not only sell but also serve my family; so, deliciousness and safety are my top priorities. Thanks to that, my family has maintained this stall for three generations.”

The culinary artist Ton Nu Thi Ha with shrimp rolls on kumquat branch. Photo: TNTH

Artwork

The country currently has about 3,000 dishes of all kinds, and over 1,700 dishes are cooked in the Hue way. Master Chef Phan Ton Tinh Hai, MSc, Principal of Vietnam Culinary Arts School said: “Hue cuisine expresses deeply the value of culture, history, customs and arts, and has an extremely unique taste. It has become an attractive brand name for Vietnamese culinary culture.”

In Hue, there exist 3 famous culinary lines: royal cuisine, folk cuisine and vegetarian cuisine with many dishes, drinks, main meals, side dishes, appetizers and desserts, which are rich, beautiful, luxurious, and elegant... Therefore, Hue cuisine can represent Vietnamese cuisine.

According to the culinary expert Ho Dac Thieu Anh, from royal dishes, folk dishes to vegetarian dishes, they all show the mind and love of the cook. Through the skillful hands of the women, each dish is a work of art cooked with all their heart.

Perhaps because of that, many people have a special fondness for Hue, especially those who live far from Hue. I have a relative who is of Hue descent living in the US. Each year, she is eager to return to her hometown just to eat ... mussel rice. Sometimes in the middle of the night, I often get the message: "Auntie craves for mussel rice, noodle soup, beo cakes..."

Minh Hien

Part 2: Going to the world

 

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