Hue Cuisine Needs More Attention!

15 Mar, 2024 | Amazing Bite

Hue cuisine is so humble. Maybe that's the way everything in this ancient city is: unhurried, simple but authentic.

Among all Vietnamese food cultures, Hue cuisine is well-known for its sophistication and delicacy because it was where the ancient Emperors and royal families lived. Hue dishes can be found in different regions across Vietnam with different versions that probably make you question: What is the real authentic flavor of Hue like? This blog post is my answer to that and since this is a personal experience, do expect it can be different from others. Nevertheless, if this is your first time visiting Vietnam, or at least trying Hue food, you'll want to explore Hue, originally. Indeed, Hue cuisine is one of the most must-try and needs to stand in the same spotlight as Hanoi or Saigon.

1. Bún Bò Huế - Hue Style Beef Noodle Soup

To pick up a symbol of Hue cuisine, that would undeniably be Bun Bo Hue - the dish Anthony Boudain described as “the greatest soup in the world”. I’ve eaten dozens of bowls of Bun Bo Hue in Hanoi but only when I had it in Hue did I realize that it is way too different from what I experienced. 
The first lesson learned is the “bún” (vermicelli) in Hue is not that big. Many Bun Bo Hue restaurants in Hanoi serve “bún” which is 2-3 times bigger than the normal size, quite similar size to “bánh canh” (Southern tapioca noodles). However, in Hue, they serve the normal-size vermicelli for Bun Bo Hue. I was surprised looking at my first bowl of authentic Bun Bo Hue and it was even more surprising when tasting it.

The broth is amazingly balanced. Some people say that Hue broth has a stronger essence of fermented fish paste (mắm ruốc) but I guess that depends on how the chefs want it to be. As a person who doesn't prefer to eat too much “mắm”, I felt no overpowering smell of ‘mắm ruốc” but its savory taste combined with lemongrass and spices was absolutely harmonious. 

The toppings are also different. I didn’t get beef meatballs like in Hanoi. Instead, I had a few balls of crab meat sausage, slices of beef shank and a big chunk of pork knuckle, which were cooked perfectly. The blood cake is an unusual thing to try but it tastes so unique. Not as cakey as I thought, this blood cake's texture is smooth like silk and gives you the feeling of eating jelly.

Taste score: 11/10

2. Cơm Hến, Mì Hến, Bún Hến - Rice or noodles with baby clam

Hến (baby clam) is one of Hue's self-produced ingredients, once mainly found in Hen Dune. This is a small oasis in the middle of the Perfume River, well-known for the tradition of catching the Hue baby clam for making “Cơm Hến”. It is a combination of so many elements: cold rice (simply the rice cooked and left cool), shredded elephant ear stem, dried pork rind, shallot, peanut, cilantro, and top with Hue clam. It is like a little bit of everything on a little cute bowl. The clam is super tiny but tastes salty and savory. If you don’t prefer rice, then “bún” or instant noodles is a great alternative, the toppings will be the same. Before you enjoy, make yourself a sauce paste of Hue homemade chili oil and “mắm ruốc”, put it into your bowl, and mix to your taste. To stop you from getting dry, don’t forget to ask for a bowl of boiled clam broth. That broth is amazing, carrying that natural sweetness from the clams.

This dish is normally served in a small portion of 15,000/bowl (~70 cents) in local food stalls so I would recommend eating this dish for a light breakfast or supper because I don’t know how many bowls are enough for lunch or dinner.

Taste score: 8.5/10 (more clam for the dish would be perfect)

3. Bánh Huế - Hue rice cake

I don’t know exactly how much I ate on that night of Hue rice cake but just remember I was deadly full when I came back. So many kinds which are "bánh lọc", "bánh nậm", "bánh bèo" with 2-3,000 VND/each (~10cent). What delicious thing on earth can you buy with 10 cents?!

“Bánh bèo” is normally served first if you order because it is pre-made inside very cute little saucers. When serving, the seller will add in the crispy pork rind, green onion pork fat and shrimp floss. To eat it right, you should take the right amount of fish sauce drizzle all over the saucer, scoop the cake out, and enjoy. 

Even if “bánh bèo” is your love at first sight, leave room in your belly for ‘bánh lọc” and “bánh nậm”. Unlike the previous one, “Bánh lọc” and ‘bánh nậm” are wrapped elegantly inside banana leaves, with a layer of flour outside and pork-shrimp combo as fillings. These two dishes are served hot. Fish sauce is also served as a dipping condiment. If you like the chewiness, you’ll love the texture of tapioca flour in “bánh lọc”. “Bánh nậm” is more favorable for those who don't like chewing because of its tenderness and melt-in-your-mouth flavor.

Taste score: 9/10 

4. Bánh Khoái - Nem Lụi - Sizzling pancake & Grilled pork skewer   

Vietnamese cuisine is versatile from North to South. You can eat one dish here and find something similar to that as you travel to different places across the country. “Bánh Khoái” is quite similar to “bánh xèo” but the batter is thicker, however, much crispier than “bánh xèo”. The fillings and complemented herbs of both dishes are not much different. “Bánh xèo” is served with a sweet and sour fish sauce, while “bánh khoái” is normally served with a thickened sauce made of pork liver and peanut. One thing you may notice is that even though there is no red color of chili on the table, the sauce is sweaty hot with green chili pre-added before served. Hue people genetically eat very spicy so remember to note with the restaurant owner if you cannot eat spicy.

To match ‘bánh khoái”, a few skewers of “nem lụi” - Hue grilled pork sausage is irresistible to try out. That sausage came in so flavorful, fragrant of lemongrass, no grassy at all, and had a perfect barbecue smoke to it. Wrap it with herbs, thinly sliced mango and rice paper, and dip it into Hue spicy sauce, that was the perfect bite in your mouth. I was able to talk fire because of that dipping sauce but couldn’t resist making another roll. 

Taste score: 10/10

5. Bánh Ép - Hue pressed pancake

This is one of my interesting discoveries of Hue cuisine. Hardly have I ever heard about this kind of food until putting my legs into this city. “Bánh ép” is certainly not a popular Hue food but now, it has become one of my favorite snacks in Hue. It is translated to as “pressed cake” which explains how this dish is prepared. The tapioca balls with some pork is pressed between two round iron flats which are deadly hot. After 10-20 seconds, the seller will add in fresh quail eggs, spring onion pork fat, paté and keep pressing for a few more seconds until it’s done. 

To eat “Bánh ép”, you put the coriander and shredded papaya inside and use the “bánh ép” itself to roll, dip it into sweet and sour fish sauce and enjoy. Don't mind eating with your hand, it's so enjoyable. The cake is a little bit chewy but you’ll get the savory taste from the meat, egg and paté plus the freshness from the veggie. 

I discovered that Hue had a dry version of “bánh ép” to make it easy for tourists to bring home as a present but I don't recommend that. Eating freshly made ones is so much different and truly a rewarding food experience that you need to try in Hue.

Taste score: 10/10

6. Chè - Sweet dessert soup

Hue is known for royal "chè" - the sweet dessert served for the royal family. The sweet taste of "chè" can be the same among regions but nowhere can beat "Chè Huế" in varieties, I think. The menu in "Chè Huế" shop is long like a decade with over 30 kinds. You can order a little of everything to taste as a traditional way of enjoying royal "chè". 

But if you ask me what type is the best one to try, I'll go straight to this: chè bột lọc heo quay. It is tapioca balls wrapping roasted pork, based in rock sugar and ginger water. Sounds unusual, right?! Meaty fatty flavor in a sweet dessert? I was also giving that a prejudicial comment but since I decided to try it, it totally changed my dessert experience like never before.

The savory from the roasted pork skin with the chewiness from the tapioca flour and the light sweetness from rock sugar made sense to me. Obviously, it is the most unique combination that I’ve ever had but tastes more delicious than any other "chè" in Huế. To balance that sweet and savory taste in one dessert, I guess only Hue people can make it right.

Taste score: 9/10

7. Tào phớ - Beancurd

Tào phớ is the childhood dish of many Vietnamese kids. It is healthy, simply delicious, and guess what, costs you almost nothing. If you only have 1$ (~VND23,000) for your walking date night in Hue, you can buy at least 2 cups of bean curd.

I love to call this dessert “naked beancurd” to differentiate it from the Hanoi beancurd which has a few toppings on that. The Hue version has nothing except beancurd and ginger sugar syrup but I ate that with all of my enjoyment. That warm, silky layer of beancurd with a touch of gingery sweetness melts my heart. I was nostalgic also as I saw that bean curd lady’s little setup. Everything was put in two ends of a shoulder yoke: one end was the hot beancurd kept in a thermos pot and the other end was a mini wooden cupboard that had everything she needed to serve: bowls, sugar syrup, ginger syrup, some limes wedges, takeaway cup…). You'll see a lot of senior women like this walking in the streets with their whole lives on their shoulders. Please send them support by trying their hot yummy beancurd. 

Want some great views? The best spot to eat this delicacy is Truong Tien Bridge at night and just across the road at Thien Mu Pagoda, where you can sit down and watch the sunset over the Perfume River.

Taste score: 10/10 

Perfume River when sun goes down, taken from Thien Mu Pagoda

8. Cà phê muối - Salted coffee

If Hanoi has egg coffee, Saigon has iced milk coffee, then Hue is famous for Salted coffee. Visually, it is served the same as Hanoi filter coffee. But here is the difference: inside the cup they put condensed milk in the bottom and creamy salty cream foam on top. And when the coffee drops down from the filter, it’ll stay between the milk and the cream layer. In the meantime, you’ll chit-chat with friends or give yourself some time to read your favorite book. When the coffee is ready, add in some ice to your taste and sip.

Left to right: Egg coffee, salted coffee, iced milk coffee

I got the chance to taste it in the shop where this drink was originally created. The place is nothing fancy, with the old banner writing “cà phê muối” (Salted coffee). This coffee has a balance of bitterness, sweetness, and creaminess but what makes me fall in love is that perfect saltiness which cuts the sweetness from condensed milk so smoothly. Not a coffee person but I came back to that coffee shop at least 3 times during my short trip to Hue to savor this delicious beverage. And it is just VND 15,000/cup (70 cents)! I don’t think you can find any tasty coffee at this price in Hanoi or Saigon.

Taste score: 10/10

Saying goodbye to Hue, I think this ancient city really deserves more attention, especially from passionate foodies. If Hanoi or Saigon is too noisy for you, come to Hue. It will heal you with poetic scenery, a peaceful vibe, extraordinary people, and unquestionably delicious food.

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