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Specialty Foods of Hue and Hoi An

Most visitors to Vietnam focus on traditional food specialties, such as spring rolls in nuoc mam (fish sauce), pho ga (chicken noodle soup), and bun bo (beef with rice noodles). Central Vietnam regional dishes of Hue and Hoi An are often ignored, even by those traveling to these areas. This article provides you with a description of Central Vietnam cuisine, as well as a road map of select Hue and Hoi An specialty restaurants.

Several centuries back, the capitol of Vietnam relocated to Hue. Emperors felt that the more dishes created during their reign, the more power and sophistication they would appear to have. Emperors hand-picked Vietnam's finest chefs and transferred them to Hue. Ordering these "new" locals to whip up hundreds of new creations, chefs introduced new regional flavors and texture to traditional Hue dishes. During this time, commoners were forbidden from eating these dishes reserved for Vietnamese royalty (too busy anyway, you might think to yourself, what with all the conjuring up of new recipes for the Emperors). Rice puddings and pancakes figure prominently in Hue cuisine. Hoi An, also in Central Vietnam, offers entirely different tastes. Chinese port traders descended upon Hoi An in the 1700's, and introduced Chinese delicacies to the local community. Rice dumplings and noodles are a staple of Hoi An food. Limited in scope compared to Hue dishes, Hoi An cuisine centers around three main dishes: the White Rose, Won Ton, and Cao Lau. Both cuisines use hot chili paste, much more so than the rest of Vietnam. The common explanation is that the climate of Central Vietnam is cooler, and more temperate, than in the North and South.

Garden Restaurant, Hotel Morin Saigon, Hue
Central Vietnam's oldest hotel has survived the Dragon Year Typhoon of 1904 (though its roof blew off), the French War and the American War. The Garden Restaurant's Vietnamese chef, a Hue local, presides carefully over the 30 + dishes prepared nightly for the buffet. Watch the crepe cook quite literally dip her hands in batter and drizzle them onto a saucepan, imparting a bird nest texture to the spring rolls. Try such specialties as Rice Pudding With Sugar Cane In Banana Leaf, Papaya And Shrimp Salad, and Special Rice Cake Hue Style With Mashed Shrimp. The buffet dinner costs a reasonable 100,000 dong per person, ($7.00 U.S.), including a live show of traditional Vietnamese music, as well as an audience-interactive, two-person dragon dance. (Garden Restaurant, Hotel Morin Saigon, 30 Le Loi Street, Hue, tel: (04)-54-823-526).

Tinh Gia Vien, Hue
Tinh Gia Vien's gracious hostess, Madame Ha, has created a garden oasis, with 185 species of plants and flowers, 400 bonsai trees, and a fabulous misting waterfall. What is so special about her food? Presentation, Presentation, Presentation. All of her traditional Hue food is elegantly and colorfully presented, much in the form of animals. Order Dance of the Phoenix and a plate of a giant cucumber bird, resting on a nest of noodles, with a pate plume, appears at your table. Green Papaya with Lemon in the Form of a Dragon comes complete with menacing red pepper eyes and tongue. The more subdued Elephant arrives with carrot ears, cucumber tusks, pate head and body, properly dressed in a rice paper crepe. These designs are brilliant, delicious, and great fun as well. Frivolity does not mean free, however. The Imperial Meal Set Menu, including drink, costs about $17 per person. Madame Ha will tell you that the first owner of her villa was a princess, and that the grounds house a special Mai plant that is 150 years old, and a longevity plant, of 200 years old. In fact, her garden is featured in a tourism brochure of royal gardens. And Madame Ha herself? Well, her full name is Ton Nu Thi Ha. Ton Nu literally translates to "family of the king." Hmm, going from not being able to eat Hue food unless you are a member of the royal family to being able to try Hue food today, to being served Hue food by a descendant of the royal family. Really moving up in the ranks on this trip, aren't we? (Tinh Gia Vien, 20/3 Le Thanh Ton Rue, Hue, tel: (04) 54-522-243).

Cua Dai Restaurant, Hoi An Beach
The Chinese influence on Hoi An cookery is unmistakable. White Rose, consisting of rice dumplings steamed with pork and shrimp inside, is similar to Chinese Dim Sum. At Cua Dai, the White Rose is served with a delicious homemade squid fish sauce. The Won Ton here is light, fluffy, melt-in-your-mouth delicious, accompanied by a sweet and sour sauce that is a cross between a salsa and a chutney. The Cao Lau, or noodles with pork slices, bean sprouts, and herbs are perhaps the most special, as only the well water in Hoi An creates these high quality noodles. Here, the pork pieces are marinated and simmered during an intense 6 hour process. This is Hoi An cuisine at its finest. No surprise that Chef Tu's parents are also chefs. Each Hoi An specialty here costs a very reasonable $1.00 to $1.50. (Cua Dai Restaurant, Hoi An Beach Resort, Hoi An Beach, tel: (04) 510-927-011).

Hoi An Restaurant, Ho Chi Minh City
This upmarket restaurant, built to resemble an Imperial Dining House, offers both Hoi An and Hue cuisines. Inside, the decor is a study in simplicity and dark wood, even on the walls and ceiling. Chairs are individually carved from solid (in other words, extremely heavy) ironwood. Bonsai trees that grow in caves also grow quite well here. For a starter, sample the Hoi An Spring Rolls. Shrimp and pork paste, enrobed in a black sesame, cassava flour and rice flour roll, offer a tasty contrast between the light, crispy paper and substantive filling inside. Tiny Rice Custard With Crumbled Shrimp is a veritable palette of attractive bursts of orange (shrimp), yellow (pork rind), and green (buttery chives), set atop a white translucent custard. Though not made with authentic Hoi An noodles, the Cau Lau is still luscious, with lean pork, fresh shrimp, a crunchy fried onion/sesame/crouton topping, and a clear beef bone broth served separately. Vietnamese green tea is delivered in an elegant wood box. Service here is first class, with staff standing at-the-ready to assist. No need to ask for help with pulling out your solid ironwood chair. Dinner for two costs about $25 each, including a glass of wine. (Hoi An Restaurant, 11 Le Thanh Ton, D. 1, Ho Chi Minh City, tel: (08) 823-7694). Well now, this primer in Central Vietnam cuisine should help you on your next trip to Vietnam. Tear yourself away from the ubiquitous outdoor pho ga stand, and try something new. Grab your appetite and away you go!

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Published on 6/18/02

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