Monday, February 23, 2009

Hawaiian Style Steamed Fish

This recipe elicited wolf-like howls of pleasure even before we started eating it, while our first bite witnessed our entire apartment shake with the giddiness that shot in waves from the hot, happy centers of our stomachs. Not only did this dish take a mere 15 minutes to prepare, but the flavors were intensely light yet screamingly delicious. Imagine a combination of ginger, cilantro, green onions, steamed yellowtail, and a citrusy yuzu ponzu sauce exploding all over your taste buds. Then imagine yourself not even wanting to chew your food, but to let it sit in your mouth as you savor its flavors. And then, finally, imagine looking dolefully down at your plate, mourning the fact that there’s only so much left to eat and nothing more.

It’s that good. We weren’t prepared for it to be that good.

The following recipe -- Hawaiian Style Steamed Kona Kampachi® (with my substitutions) -- was created by a private chef on Oahu named Stephen Butler and posted online here:

You can also check out this useful video of Chef Butler preparing the dish on YouTube.

Chef Butler apparently made this dish for the Obama family when they were vacationing in Hawaii.

What follows is my own adaptation of the ingredients list as well as the cooking directions. I made the changes because neither Kona Kampachi® nor macadamia nut oil were available at any of the six stores I visited near my home. Instead of using kampachi, which is expensive even when one can find it, I used a combination of hamachi (relatively expensive, too) and mongchong (about half the price of hamachi). And I halved the portions since he was cooking for four and I was cooking for two.


3/4 lbs hamachi (yellowtail) combined with 3/4 lbs mongchong (yellow snapper)
3 Tbsp (I like lots of ginger) fresh ginger, diced
1 bunch green onions, chopped
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
6 Tbsp peanut oil
1 Tbsp chile oil
6 Tbsp ponzu sauce (try yuzu ponzu, if you can find it)


1) If using a whole fish, filet it, remove its skin, and de-bone it lengthwise. If using filets, slice each in half lengthwise. Each filet should be sliced in two. Slice into thin sashimi-like pieces and arrange on plates for steaming.

2) Drizzle raw fish pieces with chile oil (or sesame oil, if you must).

3) Cover each plate with plastic wrap and steam for up to five minutes (until the pink flesh of the fish has turned white). Remove plastic wrap when fish is cooked.

4) Sprinkle green onions, cilantro and ginger over fish.

5) In a pan, heat the peanut oil until just before it begins to smoke. Pour an equal amount of hot oil over each plate. I used 4 plates, which meant pouring 1.5 Tbsp of hot peanut oil on each. (Listen to the fish crackle beneath the heat of the oil!)

6) Drizzle ponzu sauce around perimeter of the plates. Serve immediately.

7) Rejoice.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Helena's Hawaiian Foods

I’ve been eating a lot of heavy food lately, something I attribute to having had guests in town for nearly ten days, which meant eating out a lot, drinking more alcohol than I normally do, and putting an arctic freeze on my exercise regimen. (Our guests left two days ago, and it still hasn’t thawed out.) And last night, when we should have eaten something light and healthy, I decided to try out a new recipe I saw in Gourmet for a Monte Cubano sandwich. Talk about heavy. After soaking the sandwich in an egg batter, I took the remainder of the yellowy liquid, fried it up, and had an omelet later with my wife. Thank god we had a salad with it. At least that way I could feel less guilty for today’s high calorie binge.

Actually, truth be told, I don’t feel guilty at all. I’m pretty pleased with myself, in fact. Today I went to Helena’s Hawaiian Foods for lunch and ordered well beyond all good dietary sense. Let me begin by saying that Helena’s menu doesn’t list a single vegetable, not unless you count the small amount of watercress that comes with two of their dishes. No, wait – I take that back. Kalua pig comes with cabbage…

In any case, Helena’s is a small restaurant of about a dozen tables, with very little parking in front, very little to recommend it from outside, but some of the greatest Hawaiian food you can get anywhere on Oahu – and some of the friendliest service, too. And I’m hardly the only one who knows this. In 2000, Helena’s was recognized as a “Regional Classic” by the James Beard Foundation, an award that’s part of what Time magazine calls “the Oscars of the food world.” It’s located in Kalihi, a working class, immigrant neighborhood that’s probably my favorite food community on the island. The restaurant has been around since 1946, when Helen Chock opened it. She passed away in 2007, but her grandson, Craig Katsuyoshi, now runs the place. The restaurant displays original Jean Charlot lithographs on its walls, as well as paintings and photographs by other well-known local artists.

I got to Helena’s early for lunch, at about eleven a.m. Even then, five of the tables inside were taken, and two other parties followed me through the door. I had a long look at the menu, and one of the women working there convinced me to order what she said were their three signature dishes: fried butterfish collar, short ribs (pipikaula style), and luau squid.

As soon as I got home, I placed all of my food on one plate and took photos. I was too hungry to realize that the photos came out blurry, but at the time this didn’t seem worth checking on.

I was most intrigued by the luau squid, which looked a lot like creamed spinach, or saag paneer, or possibly old moss skimmed from the surface of a swamp. It was a dark olive green, thick as mud, with an almost fibrous element to it when scooped out of the container I was given. Mixed in with it were small, chewy pieces of squid. Most surprisingly, however, was the almost overpoweringly sweet, fragrant smell of coconut milk. What made for the swampy green color? Cooked down luau (taro) leaves, which are mixed in with other ingredients and simmered for a long time. Despite the sweet aroma of the squid luau, I was still a little wary of it. But my first bite dispelled my wariness, and I had one of those revelatory moments that happens sometimes when your initial taste of a new food, particularly when it looks like something you could make sturdy pottery from, completely wins you over. It was absolutely delicious, though also quite rich. The coconut flavor was subtler than my first smell of the dish led me to believe, and the squid mixed in was tender – I only wish there had been more.

As for the pipikaula short ribs, which are prepared by marinating and smoking the meat, they were quite good as well. They had a fair bit of fat in them, and I really had to use my front teeth to cut the pieces, which were a satisfying half-inch thick, down to size. The outer part was cooked well enough to be slightly crunchy, almost like a casing, and the flavor came out fully in the meat and juices.

I ate the fried butterfish collar like I might eat fried chicken: with my hands. It had a deliciously crispy skin, and the meat, though buttery with fat, was appetizingly white and melted in my mouth. There were about three bites in each of the three pieces in my order, with much nibbling of the bones and skin afterward. The fried butterfish collar went great with the other dishes, though I should have eaten this and the pipikaula short ribs with poi, for dipping. Ah…next time.

Helena’s offers four different set menus, combining two or three main dishes with poi or rice, but I ordered a la carte. Other delectable items include kalua pig (cooked in an imu), laulau, tripe or beef stew, beef with watercress, chicken or squid luau, long rice chicken, pipikaula short ribs, lomi salmon, lomi or poke (ahi), opihi (limpets), fried butterfish collar, boiled butterfish collar, fried ahi, and, for dessert, haupia (firm coconut pudding). It’s all quite affordable, too – the a la carte items all sell for between $3.05 (kalua pig) and $5.50 (boiled butterfish collar with watercress).

It’s a shame that Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern never had a chance to come to Helena’s when they taped their food and travel shows on Oahu. I get the feeling that the family who owns and runs the restaurant isn’t the least bit bothered, but Helena’s feels more authentic than Ono’s, more down-home…and to me, at least, the food is better, too.

Helena’s is open from Tuesday through Friday from 10:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m. You can order ahead for takeout at (808) 845-8044. Their address is 1240 N. School St.

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Hue (Part 4)

On my last day in Hue, my fourth, the rain didn't let up until nearly noon. Not in the mood to get wet, or cold and windblown, I decided to stick around the hotel for breakfast. I was curious about the top floor buffet and thought it might offer a decent break from all the local fare I'd been stuffing myself with.

I should have gone out in the cold, windy rain...

About half the tables in the buffet line. It looks nice (not counting the pink chairs with bow ties on their backs) but it was standard middle-grade hotel buffet food (served in an orange and pink pleasure palace).

Not exactly an appetizing photo. It wasn't any better in my mouth.

One big reason why I ate inside the hotel this morning: rain

By the time lunch rolled around the rain had let up. I had to grab lunch relatively early because of an early flight back to Saigon, so the clearing weather was lucky for me: I got to try a restaurant whose specialty dishes I really longed for.

The restaurant isn't much to look at, and from the street one can hardly tell it's a restaurant at all. Nor is there anything about the sign to indicate that these are the pearly (if moldy) gates to gustatory heaven.

The front of the restaurant. Hardly eye-catching...until you catch sight of the food.

Inside the restaurant: again, no tip-off that great food awaits

I ordered five dishes that can only be had in Hue. As I've said before, Hue is famous for its food. I've heard it said that Vietnam can claim 1700 different kinds of food in its culinary repertoire, and 1400 of them originated in Hue. Is this true? I have no idea. All I know is that these foods are unique, delicious, and unbelievably cheap.

The first dish to arrive was called banh ram it. I'm not sure how to translate this, or any of what follows, so I'll do my best to offer descriptions instead.

Banh ram it is a crispy piece of deep fried rice, on top of which is heaped a fat slab of steamed rice with cooked shrimp inside. Scattered all over these are shavings of freshly cooked shrimp. The combination of textures is amazing, and the shrimp gives a lot of flavor. Add nuoc mam (fish sauce) to the dish and you'll blush at how much pleasure this gives you.

Extraordinary dish #1: banh ram it

My second order was banh beo. These are tiny dishes of steamed rice topped with pork crackling, shavings of freshly cooked shrimp, and nuoc mam. These were excellent, too, and somehow fun to eat.

Extraordinary dish #2: banh beo

My third and fourth orders came wrapped in banana leaves, as pictured below. I ordered bot loc cay xanh and banh nam. Want to know what they are? Then please keep reading!

Dish of rice crepes cooked inside banana leaves

The bot loc cay xanh tasted more like the banana leaf in which it cooked than the banh nam, which made it slightly bitterer. But the translucent rice was soft and chewy, and the shrimp it contained had lots of flavor and was cooked to the perfect firmness. One pours nuoc mam over the niblet and then scoops it up with a spoon.

Extraordinary dish #3: bot loc cay xanh

The banh nam was even better, in my opinion. The rice crepe wasn't as chewy as it was in the bot loc cay xanh, and the shrimp in this dish was saltier and softer. Again, one pours nuoc mam onto the crepe and scoops it up with a spoon.

Extraordinary dish #4: banh nam

The final dish, banh beo, was my least favorite. I found the rolled steamed rice crepes to be too soft, and although it comes with shavings of freshly cooked shrimp and nuoc mam I found the dish rather flavorless overall.

Extraordinary dish #5: banh uot

This restaurant was absolutely worth my effort to find, and it's not far at all from the main tourist area of Hue. Each dish cost between 15-20,000 dong (from about 90 cents to $1.20).

The restaurant is called Hang Me Number 1 Restaurant (Quán Số Một Hàng Me) and is open from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. It's located at 45 Vo Thi Sau Street; their phone number is (054) 837-341.

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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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Hue (Part 2)

My second day in Hue started off poorly, mostly because of the heavy rain that woke me up before I was ready and continued throughout the morning. But despite the rain I was determined to have Hue's most famous culinary product, bun bo Hue, and I didn't care how wet I became getting there. This was the perfect attitude to have, it turned out, because my rain gear didn't protect me at all. I arrived at the restaurant sopping wet, and then I unwittingly chose the only seat located beneath a steady drip of rusty water from the corrugated metal rooftop.

Bun bo Hue restaurant on Ly Thuong Kiet Street. Very local, very delicious. But going there in the pouring rain probably isn't the best idea.

It's not easy eating spicy soup with a pig's foot sticking out of it, with all the other customers staring at you and dirty water plopping on your head every five seconds. What the situation required was focus, but I really wasn't up to the challenge. I realized later that it would have been a difficult enough challenge already without the other elements to contend with.

I love places like this: it was almost literally a hole in the wall (it had holes in the roof, like I said, and there were gaps underfoot as well), whose sole purpose for fifteen or twenty years has been to make and serve a single dish, refining it over time, and getting closer and closer to perfection. And not just any food, but a hearty, spicy soup cooked in a vat over a wood fire. Yes, the place was dirty, but there was also something beautiful about it. The restaurant had a wabi-sabi aesthetic to it, and it was in overdrive here.

Bowls of rice vermicelli awaiting spicy soup

The soup vats here were spicy just to look at. As I got closer, steam rose off the surface and enveloped my head, and the piquancy of red chilies shot up my nostrils. I could have stood there all day just breathing it in.

You want spicy? They've got spicy. Here's a vat of Hue's favorite muy caliente, or shall I say cai qua, morning soup.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and call the bowl of bun bo Hue that I was served the most perfect one I've ever seen. Granted, I'm not a huge bun bo Hue fan, but even if you don't like this kind of dish, how can you look at the photo below and not respect it?

If there was such a thing as a perfect bowl of bun bo Hue...

I dumped virtually the entire plate of bean sprouts and herbs that I was given into my bowl, and I also ate my fair share of fried bread that came with it.

It was insanely spicy, and I'll admit I'm a little weak when it comes to hot foods. But, as always, it was a fascinating meal to me, and I suffered slowly through the pain on my tongue, savoring the generous slices of well cooked meat, the crunchy tendon, the huge ball of sausage, the vermicelli noodles (stained red from the red chilies in the broth), the chopped scallions, and even the nearly black blood cakes, which had a buttery consistency in my mouth but were more or less without flavor. It didn't help that I came to breakfast with a sore throat -- a bad idea when eating spicy fare. I was coughing throughout my meal, and in the end couldn't finish the whole bowl. Even so, I was glad I came here and ate what I did. The heavy rain, which was annoying at first, ended up enhancing the atmosphere of the restaurant.

For anyone who finds themselves in Hue, this bun bo Hue restaurant is located at 11B Ly Thuong Kiet Street.

Later that morning I went wandering around my neighborhood. I saw someone eating bread at an open-fronted restaurant, and so I walked inside, sat down, and ordered a soft, fresh baguette with jam and butter and an iced coffee -- all to soothe my tongue, which was still on fire.

After breakfast, I headed to a small cafe where I sat sheltered from the rain and had a baguette and some local coffee

When it came time for lunch, I was ready for my second imperial cuisine restaurant (well, the third, actually, if you count the one that wouldn't let me eat there). I headed toward the Citadel, got lost in a beautiful little neighborhood full of trees and old houses set back from the road, then found the place I came for: Y Thao Garden Restaurant. This restaurant, although somewhat far away from the majority of hotels, is definitely worth visiting, especially if you still have energy after a day of exploring some of the nearby tourist sites.

Main dining area of Y Thao Garden Restaurant

I ordered off the set menu, which is the only choice you have, a meal of 9 mini-courses that cost less than US$10. The first course was something I came across in all three imperial cuisine restaurants I went to. It was pretty, I guess, but I felt like I was eating something gimmicky. Was this something the emperor actually ate two centuries ago? So the restaurants all claim.

In any case, the peacock in the photo below was artfully carved out of carrots, which were placed around a pineapple lying on a porcelain plate. (It's nose, I should add, was made from a small bird's-eye chili.) One dozen spring rolls stuck up out of the peacock's back, and a small bowl of fish sauce was provided for dipping them in. They were light, filled with pork, shrimp, and black mushrooms, but their true worth lay in the part they played in the peacock's presentation, not in their taste.

1st course: springs rolls on decorative pineapple-and-carved-vegetable peacock

The second course was a small bowl of vegetable soup with a single cilantro leaf floating on top. This dish, too, was pleasantly light, and the aroma of fresh boiled potatoes and carrots matched its clean taste.

2nd course: vegetable soup

After my second course, I was quickly given a third: steamed king prawns slung over the rim of a tall glass and joined by a tomato as well as fancily cut scallions and red chilies. While the veggies are included for show, the prawns are by all means fair game. I peeled their shells, exposed their white flesh like stuffing, and dipped them in a small bowl of lime juice mixed with pepper. They were big enough to be a mouthful, and their mildly briny taste underlined the dipping sauce I used. They were beautiful...and I was starting to get full already.

3rd course: steamed shrimp

The fourth course was set down, and I recognized it right away -- banh xeo, otherwise known as a "sizzling crepe." Again, it was nothing I hadn't seen before, even in terms of its presentation. But I'm not complaining, for it was quite tasty. The inside filling consisted of bean sprouts, pork, and shrimp, and the rice flour "banh" was crispy, though a little more oily than I'd expected.

4th course: Hue speciality pancake (banh xeo)

Specialty pancake opened up

Course number five sounded very interesting to me, and when it was set down before me I couldn't tell exactly what I was looking at. What dominated the plate was fig, though it looked like pork and even had a firmness to it that made me stop and wonder. But the taste was mild and decidedly not pork, or meat of any kind. It was sprinkled with peanuts and sesame seeds and spread upon a bed of chopped basil. One was meant to spoon the salad onto the rice crackers that accompanied the dish, and this lent a salty crunch to the salad that I quite liked.

5th course: mixed fig salad, eaten on shrimp crackers

The sixth course soon arrived, by which time I had to take stock of my body and listen for any signals telling me not to go on. There might have been a whimper somewhere, but it wasn't loud enough to take seriously. So I dug in. This course consisted of grilled beef with slivered carrots and green papaya in the center. It was garlicky, and a bit spicy, but the primary taste was of sweet grilled beef, similar to what you'd find in a bowl of bun thit nuong.

6th course: grilled beef with sliced carrot and papaya in the center

I was worried about the seventh course until I saw how tiny it was. My waitress came out with a teacup-sized bowl of steamed rice mixed with vegetables (the same as what was used in the soup) and lotus seeds. This was to cleanse the palate after the rich dish I'd just finished, and thankfully it was quite light. The lotus seeds surprised me with their bitterness, and while I was initially interested in their flavor I didn't finish them.

7th course: steamed rice mixed with lotus seeds and vegetables

The meal ended with a dessert of two prettily peeled mandarin oranges, as well as what I didn't understand at first was actually food.

Mandarin orange for dessert

I knew that the flowers in the photo below weren't real, but I had no idea that I was meant to eat them. I had a similar experience at a Japanese restaurant in Saigon once where I attempted to eat a vegetable that was, to my chagrin, a giant painted marble...or something. And I didn't want to commit the same faux pas in this nice restaurant, and at the same time risk breaking my teeth. The second dessert was, in fact, gelatin and green bean cake colored and shaped to look like flowers. It was pretty amazing, and it tasted good, too, especially with a hot cup of jasmine tea.

Second dessert of flowers made from green bean cake and gelatin

Y Thao Garden is a very classy place, but it's also affordable. One thing that I appreciated about the restaurant was their collection of antique Chinese and Vietnamese porcelain, which I was told had once belonged to the royal family. The owners of the restaurant, who were almost eagerly accessible, spoke excellent English and were incredibly well-versed on both the history and the arts of old Hue. If you make it here, give yourself fifteen minutes to talk to these wonderful people.

Restaurant collection of Chinese ceramics commissioned by the Nguyen Dynasty in the early- to mid-1800s

You'd also do well to give yourself fifteen minutes to wander around the premises. The two wings of the main house (where the primary dining area is) are newly constructed with building materials collected from old, abandoned temples outside of Hue. They're brilliantly utilized and gorgeous.

Newest wing of Y Thao Garden, built from the wood of an old temple in the nha ruong style

Y Thao Garden is located at 3 Thach Han Street, not terribly far from the Citadel. Any taxi driver will know how to get here. The restaurant's telephone number is (54) 352-3018, and their email is

As if I hadn't eaten enough at lunch, I went for ANOTHER "imperial cuisine" meal, this time with the sister and niece of my former Vietnamese-American landlord in Saigon. The owner of the restaurant was a distant relative of theirs whom they hadn't seen in almost ten years. Hoping I wouldn't get in the way of their reunion, I tagged along.

Front of Tinh Gia Vien Restaurant

The artistry of our first course impressed me, as would most of the following courses, and I felt a little guilty digging into the flowing tail of the "phoenix" that spread elegantly across our long porcelain dish. The tail consisted of pork, with its yellow outer edges made from thin strips of omelet. Though the course was not meant to be substantial, I felt that the taste could have been less bland.

Dance of the phoenix (cha phung hoang mua)

Our second course was an actual lantern made from a pineapple. The light from a flame flickered beneath a number of skewers with fried tofu skin, fried squid, and grilled beef wrapped in grape leaves (bo nuong la nho). This was akin to a sample platter of appetizers, all of which had me wishing for more such lanterns on our table.

Pineapple lantern of assorted appetizers (huong moc dang)

This was followed by a small portion of soup made from egg, crab, thinly sliced vegetables, and pepper. The soup was excellent, though much like I've had elsewhere.

"Surprise soup of Hue" (sup ngac nhien cua Hue)

After that we were served something that seems to be a staple at Imperial Cuisine restaurants: fried spring rolls presented on a pineapple that's been carved into the shape of a peacock. Despite having this sort of thing twice before, I enjoyed it now for a third time, and thought that the artistry of this particular dish was most impressive here. Look at the carrot flowers in the "tail" and the bird's eye chilies in the face, not to mention the head and collar of the peacock. That is glorious food right there.

Vietnamese spring rolls in the form of a peacock (nem ran hinh con cong)

The next dish up was a sweet and sour papaya salad, with lots of carrot woven in both as garnishing and comestible. This dish, too, was unique to Tinh Gian Vien, and its tanginess was a welcome addition at this point, as it cleansed the palate a bit.

Sweet and sour papaya in the form of a dragon (goi du du hinh rong bay)

I love fried calamari, which is a gloriously simple dish. And what we were served for our sixth course didn't disappoint. Yet it wasn't really any different from fried cuttlefish that I've had elsewhere, and the garnishing, which tends to be half the artistry of these dishes, was minimal -- a little disappointing for a cuisine that prides itself on being the product of three hundred years of refinement.

Fried cuttlefish (muc chien don)

Our final course was nicely done and quite tasty. The tortoise was apparent in the presentation, and the fried rice was good after a sprinkling of soy sauce. It was nice finding this dish on the menu, as it was different from other courses I was served at Phuoc Thanh and Y Thao Garden.

Cantonese rice in the form of a tortoise (com hinh kim quy)

The highlight of the meal was both the company at my table and also our interaction with the restaurant's owner, Madame Ha. Despite her sixty-odd years, she ranks up there as one of the liveliest persons I've ever met in Vietnam, and no one compares with her in terms of the passion she brings to whatever she happens to be doing. Not only is she one of Vietnam's most famous chefs and restaurateurs (she has served elaborate Hue-style meals to various heads of state, and has long been a well known TV personality), but she is also one of Hue's most respected photographers, painters, and sculptors. She has also worked a
s a nurse for many years, and speaks several languages. I found her extremely generous and a fascinating person to be around. If you find yourself in Hue, try to make a point to stop at her restaurant and say hello. She's very accessible, as she likes to go from table to table and speak with her customers.

Tinh Gia Vien Restaurant is located at 20 Le Thanh Ton Street and is open from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. The phone number here is (054) 522-243.

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