Monday, February 16, 2009

Hue (Part 3)

This morning the rain let up long enough that I didn't have to worry about getting soaked on my way to breakfast. The feel of cold, wet clothing licking my skin as I eat literally gives me the shivers. And I don't want anything interfering with me when I'm looking forward to a meal, in this case a bowl of bun hen followed by a bowl of com hen.

This com hen place was very popular for breakfast, and for good reason

"What is hen?" you ask. "Isn't it a female chicken?" Yes, in the English-speaking West a hen is a female chicken, but in Vietnam it's not. Hen here means clams. And these clams are tiny guys that can only be found in the waters off of Hue. This is probably why Hue is famous for these dishes, and why no hen found on Saigon menus can hold a candle to those found in Hue.

This is much of what goes into a bowl of com or bun hen

I hadn't had com hen or bun hen in nearly seven years, when I came to Hue to write a small booklet for the World Heritage Foundation. I'd forgotten how amazing Hue food, when it's authentic, can be. It can be hard to find, but even in the main tourist district, in the southern part of town, there are first-rate hole-in-the-wall eateries that have been making these dishes, and attracting local Hue people, for fifteen to twenty years.

Bun hen was surprisingly spicy but oh so good. I was also served a bowl of clam broth to drink alongside my meal. As you would expect, the broth was slightly briny, and the saltiness neutralized some of the heat that lodged in my throat. This is one of my favorite dishes in Hue, if not my favorite. One bowl costs less than 25 cents.

As you might have gathered from the photos, there are a lot of ingredients found in these two dishes. My eyes and tongue detected fried clams, fried mi noodles, fried pork skin, peanuts, sesame seeds, cilantro, rau ma (like pennywort), bean sprouts, star fruit, cucumbers, banana flower, rice vermicelli/white rice, and red chili sauce. I'm sure I've forgotten a few things...

The bowl of bun hen was followed by a bowl of com hen, which included a broth made from boiled clams (hen)

I'm not sure if it was as spicy as it seemed at the time, since my throat was sore, but I'm glad I had some iced tea to help wash it down in between loud bursts of my hacking, spitting cough. Bun hen comes with a bowl of clam broth, which you drink as an accompaniment, sipping on it at your pleasure. It sounds odd, I guess, until you take your first sip, and then you think, "Yeah, sipping clam broth on the side makes perfect sense with this dish."

Com hen all stirred together and ready to be eaten

Com hen comes with the clam broth added to all the other ingredients I mentioned, and it's your job to mix it all up before eating it. With the addition of the broth, the taste is brinier. I prefer bun hen to com hen because the noodles are lighter and my tongue is able to differentiate the individual ingredients better. After mixing it well, com hen ends up more like a spicy stew full of fresh herbs. And while the clam broth is delicious, it absorbs the spice more than anything else and was difficult to deal with as it slid down my tender, scratchy gullet. But I did like all the different textures, especially the crispy, fried pork skins and the firm, juicy star fruit, and the hen was chewy and flavorful.

I highly recommend the restaurant I went to: Quan 11 - Truong Dinh. (It looks strange, but that's what it said on their sign.) Their telephone number is 833043.

For lunch I decided to go vegetarian. My stomach had started sending me signals -- bloating and pain, mostly -- that I was eating too much, and even though Hue's food is some of the healthiest you'll find anywhere, the city, which is predominantly Buddhist, also has a vibrant vegetarian cuisine.

Entrance to Lien Hoa, an amazing vegetarian restaurant

I was vegetarian myself off and on for about eight years (it was a long time ago), and had I always been able to find the kind of food I found at Lien Hoa I might still be vegetarian today. When I say I probably had the best vegetarian food of my life here, I'm not speaking in hyperbole. I have no idea what it is that they do, but this is food that literally made me stop in the middle of chewing and wonder at what it might mean to my life.

Inside Lien Hoa

Each dish I tried here had the same effect on me: shovel food in my maw, begin to chew, let the flavors explode on my tongue and the textures work between my teeth...and then STOP...and wonder at the success Lien Hoa's chefs have had in turning these dishes -- these inexpensive, heaping portions that they've so beautifully presented -- into masterpieces. That's what they are.

A mild tasting but wholly satisfying vegetable soup (canh rau)

I have a feeling that the majority of vegetarians outside of Hue would be brought to tears by this food. This is the shiznit, my vegetarian friends. This food is revelatory.

Vegetable spring rolls

The only thing I wish they did differently is explain on their menu what their wild-named dishes consist of. Most of their menu is decipherable, but I really wanted to know what I was eating in the photo below. "Appertizer Eight Weapons" (bat buu khai vi) doesn't tell me much.

Mock pork and grilled beef in la lot leaves (pepper leaves)

This was also an insane amount of food. I placed half orders of everything once I realized I could, but every dish came as a full order. Even so, the bill was hardly worth worrying about. Overall, it ended up costing about $5.50.

A colorful mixed salad (vegetarian, of course)

Lien Hoa is at 3 Le Quy Don Street and opens for business from 6:30 a.m. until 9:00 p.m. Their telephone number is (054) 816884.

All that eating, along with the heavy, misting clouds that refused to lift or dissipate, tired me out, and I headed to this small local cafe (giai khat) across the street from my hotel. It was a good choice. No one bothered me, and the coffee, which was good, only cost 29 cents.

After lunch I needed a shot of espresso, which in Hue seems to be normal black coffee. I can't even imagine what local people are served when they ask for espresso. Pure coffee extract, I presume.

For dinner I was hankering for another well known Hue dish: nem lui. Actually, I need to revise that last statement. I was really hankering for two well known Hue dishes, nem lui and bun thit nuong -- the latter of which is commonly found throughout Vietnam and in overseas Vietnamese restaurants.

This place was unassuming but intensely satisfying

For some reason good nem lui isn't often made outside of Hue. I'm not sure what the reason for this is, but if you want authentic nem lui you have to come to Hue to get it.

Nem lui

Nem lui is minced pork grilled in a sweet, peppery, garlic marinade on bamboo sticks. The flavor is incredible -- sweet, meaty, and rich -- but you don't eat it plain. Rather, you take a piece of rice paper and use it to pull the meat off the stick, then add sliced cucumbers, banana flower, lettuce, cilantro, basil (rau thom), pennywort (rau ma), and green mango.

Add-ons for nem lui

You then grab some vinegared papaya and carrot and stuff it in the rice paper, and once you have a firm hold on this amazing wad of food you dip it into a sauce (nuoc leo) made from peanuts, sesame seeds, and pork liver and heart (don't worry; it's delicious), and you eat it.

Papaya and carrots and nem lui dipping sauce

Nem lui, wrapped and ready to eat

As if the nem lui wasn't enough to fill me up, I also ordered a bowl of bun thit nuong, which is a dish made of vermicelli rice noodles, grilled beef, peanuts, carrot, papaya, lettuce, cilantro, basil, fish sauce, red chili, and garlic. This restaurant was equally renowned for its nem lui and bun thit nuong, and since both dishes originated in Hue I felt obligated (and I was hungry) to try them here.

Bun thit nuong

I have to say, the bun thit nuong was incredible here, and had I stayed longer in Hue I probably would have come back here again. The nem lui was just as good, however. This is a great place to come and try two of Hue's best contributions to Vietnam's culinary landscape.

For 10 pieces of nem lui and all the fixings it will cost you 35,000 dong (about $2). For a bowl of bun thit nuong the cost is a mere 10,000 dong (about 60 cents). The name of the restaurant is Quan Tai Phu and it's located at 2 Dien Bien Phu Street. Their telephone number is 0908141159.

When I got back to my hotel, I decided to walk off some of my huge dinner. Once I started wandering around, however, I recognized the neighborhood I was in from previous visits to Hue. And what I remembered was that the neighborhood used to have a number of excellent sidewalk vendors selling che, which is a Vietnamese dessert typically made from sweet beans, crushed ice, and lots of sugar. But che can be made from many different things, and most Westerners I know don't often go for sweet bean desserts. I eventually stopped to ask a shopowner if she could recommend a che place nearby, and she pointed me to an alley across the street and told me to try there. Even before I got to the start of the alley I recognized it as a place I'd been to before.

This place was called Che Hem (Alleyway Che)

This place specialized in che. Cheap che. Over twenty kinds of che that hardly ranged beyond 3000 dong (less than 20 cents). I sat down, grabbed a menu that was in Vietnamese, tried to ignore the stares of people around me, not to mention a table full of young men calling out to me, not expecting me to understand their wisecracks. But, when I turned to them and replied to them in their own language, they pretty much shut up, which was nice. Even so, it didn't stop a group of middle aged women from pointing at me, yelling garbled English, and walking out laughing over whatever's funny about yelling garbled English at a white guy in Vietnam.

Mixed fruit che (che trai cay)

I ordered a mixed fruit che and was going to eat it in a hurry and leave since I didn't want to deal with any more small minded people, but then three students sitting two tables away approached me with shy smiles and asked if they could join me. I welcomed them to the short stools around me and we talked together for a while in Vietnamese and English. They were from Ha Tinh, near Vinh, and were first-year students at a local university. Their kindness toward me was precisely the antidote I was hoping for after the weirdness of the previous ten minutes, and after they offered to buy me another che, which I couldn't possibly get down, we ended up exchanging email addresses and saying good-night.

I had a number of less than friendly encounters in Hue, which really surprised me considering how conservative the city is and how reserved its people generally are, and I'm in no great hurry to go back there. However, this single encounter with the students reminded me of how lucky I was to be traveling in Vietnam, and that a few bad incidents are hardly worth worrying about, for they're not the norm here. I wouldn't characterize this che place as particularly warm toward foreigners, but it's worth hunting down if you visit Hue. If you come here with someone else, or with several other people, I can almost assure you that no one will bother you. If you come alone, like I did, you're a sitting duck for other people's attention, which has to be expected here, unfortunately.

In any case, che hem is located down Che 8 (alley #8) just off of
Le Quy Don Street (I think -- I'll have to check on this).

Some nice college students I met at Che Hem

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  1. Nice choices. When I lived in Hue I regularly ate at Quan Tai Phu and Lien Hoa. Highly recommended! If you're ever in the neighbourhood again, I can introduce you to some fantastic spots you missed.

  2. Hi Vicero: Thanks for the comment. I'd love to get your recommendations for places in Hue to eat. I'm afraid that some of them might be gone now, as everything changes here so fast, but I'm more than happy to do some digging the next time I'm in Hue. What brought you to live in Hue, by the way?