Hue dishes are always exquisitely presented
Dishes like paintings
84 years old, the culinary artisan Mai Thi Tra herself makes sweets, jams, pickles, etc. for Tet. A special dish that she often makes for Tet or death anniversaries is banh la cha tom. The output she has after steps such as wrapping, pounding, steamed, etc. is a plate of banh la, carefully wrapped in green dong leaves and a dish of cha tom arranged in the shape of a flower.
To accompany banh it trang, cha tom is made in the shape of kumquats, hung on a branch. After steaming, Mrs. Tra dyes cha tom by dipping it into yolk and drying it on a fire.
Tasting banh la cha tom in Hue, Ms. Almuth Meyer-Zollitsch, the former head of Goethe Institute, kept complimenting: "I really don't want to eat this beautiful picture. We admire the skillfulness of Hue women who can make dishes as delicious as beautiful."
Mrs. Tra was born into a noble family. Her grandfather is the teacher of Emperor Duy Tan; her aunt, Mrs. Mai Thi Vang was Duy Tan's wife; her father was a mandarin. At 4 years old, Tra was taught by her mother how to cook.
Even the arrangement is also eye-catching
"My Mom cooked very well. Together with other mandarins' wives, she used to cook for the king when he dropped by. She allowed her children to help and imbued me with the love of cooking. I have gradually become good at cooking without knowing," said Mrs. Tra.
Mrs. Ton Nu Tuyet Mai, whose grandfather used to work for Bo Le in the Nguyen Dynasty (Bo Le is equivalent to a Department today) and her family on Phan Van Truong St., Hue City have still maintained the old style of cooking. Her Hue dishes are a combination of flavors, tastes and colors.
"Cooks always want diners to enjoy their food," explained Mrs. Mai. "Look at a dish of vegetables in Hue, you can see it is like a multi-colored and multi-flavored picture. A bowl of sauce is the same. It has the color of purple of ruoc, red of tom chua, amber of fish sauce, pink of tom kho đanh. It looks simple but makes diners attend and enjoy.”
Those are stories in the family. On a larger scale such as in cooking contests, Hue cuisine is always valued not only for its deliciousness but also its display. About the victory of the chef of La Residence Hotel in the Golden Spoon Cooking Contest, the culinary expert Chiem Thanh Long, a referee of the contest said besides his creativity and renovation of royal dishes from well-known local ingredients, Hue dishes impress diners with simple but exquisite decoration.
Different types of Hue dishes
A chorus of colors
Hue people are well known as "eating by eyes." Eating, for them, is to enjoy the essence, not to be full. Hue-styled dishes and Hue ways of eating emphasize appearance. Someone says cooking is like drawing a picture, composing a poem or playing a piece of music. It is a harmonious combination of ingredients and colors.
To Hue cuisine, beauty is as important as deliciousness. From ingredient selecting, to preliminary processing, to cooking and displaying, beauty is always taken into consideration. The talent of Hue women can be seen through the way they buy ingredients and mix them so that each dish is a chorus of colors, a beautiful picture.
The artisan Mai Thị Tra emphasized: "A good dish must be beautiful. It must be, first of all, elegant and eye-pleasing. Every dish of Hue is colorful. Hue people like to mix natural colors, use plants grown in the garden and edible decoratives.”
Each dish is a beautiful picture
In her book "Unique Cuisine of Hue" the culinary artisan Hoang Thi Nhu Huy wrote: "The beauty of Hue cuisine comes from miniature, lively and lovely pieces formed by pruning. Original colors of ingredients are kept or improved by combining and mixing colors from vegetables. Containers must be well chosen to match the food, to make the food stand out. It includes arrangement, table manners and the place where food is served.”
Many people believe that the origin of "eating the beauty" comes from the forbidden city. In the past, ladies and maids tried to prepare outstanding dishes to get the king's attention. Gradually, decorating Hue dishes becomes an art and spreads widely.
To many Hue people, cooking and food designing is a passion passed through generations.
Story and photos: Minh Hien