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A Cuisine of Heaven and Earth

From royal dishes worth preserving to some of the world's best street food, the cooking of Hue, Vietnam's food capital, is like no other.

June 03, 1998|MAI PHAM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HUE, Vietnam — Come back to Hue if you so yearn

Back to the Perfume River

For her water runs deep

She loves you still

Back to the Ngu Mountains

For the birds have flown home

Waiting for you still.

--Vietnamese song

*

Hours before dawn, the smell of food permeates the air. Walking along Nguyen Binh Khiem Street with my husband, my sister-in-law and her husband, I see people cooking, their stoves roaring hot, their pots billowing with steam.

Women rush past us toward the market carrying baskets filled with xoi hap, a sticky rice with fresh corn and mung bean paste. A nutty fragrance, combined with muoi me--a condiment of roasted sesame seeds, salt and sugar--trails behind them. It's the smell of my childhood, the smell of breakfast and morning.

I feel so good--excited, really--to be in a place I've heard about all my life but have never seen until now. I was born in Saigon and lived there the first half of my life before fleeing to America, but I never dared venture beyond my hometown. The war restricted travel as it did almost everything else.

In Vietnam, Hue (pronounced "way") is considered a culinary mecca, known not only for fabulous street foods such as bun bo, banh beo and banh khoa--foods that I've always adored--but for its refined royal cuisine as well. Finally, my dreams have come true: I will get to savor the best of both here where it all began, here along the banks of Song Huong, the Perfume River.

Our first stop is at Quan Ba Do, or Mrs. Red's Restaurant. Nguyen Thi Mai, the owner, welcomes us into an unadorned storefront. A handful of tables and low stools furnish the dining room. A small, dark kitchen consists of one wood-fired stove with a large steamer on top. A tall basket filled with hundreds of tiny ramekins sits nearby. In the back, a couple of children frolic and others sleep on the divan as their mothers tend to the kitchen. Here, under this one roof, family life and restaurant work go hand in hand, as they have for generations.

"My mother used to do this before I got into it," says Nguyen with an eager look, stirring the batter in a large ceramic vat.

Around here, Nguyen is considered master of the beloved local favorites banh beo--steamed rice cakes resembling beo, a round, flat-leafed weed that grows in ponds and waterways around Hue--and banh la, a similar rice cake stuffed with shrimp and wrapped in fragrant dong leaves.

"To make great banh beo, you have to start with good bot gao [rice flour]. That's the real secret," she says in a clipped, abrupt, sing-song but exceedingly emphatic manner that is uniquely Hue.

Although frail-looking and in her 50s, Nguyen begins every morning by hauling to a nearby mill two large pails of rice that she's soaked the day before. "I take my rice to Uncle Nam's because he's the best," she explains. "He grinds with uniform pressure and speed, so the paste always comes out clean, velvety and smooth."

To prepare the batter, she mixes the rice paste with water (preferably rainwater), then strains it to remove impurities. Since both of her specialties rely on this basic batter, it must be perfect.

"Come, have a seat, I'll make you some banh beo. They're the best you'll ever have," she says, gesturing with pride.

"Thanks, but I'd rather stand and watch," I tell her, thinking: How could I miss watching my very favorite dish being made the traditional way? Nguyen packs the steamer with as many tiny dishes as can fit. She stirs the batter, one moment moving left, another right, sloshing sounds thumping and echoing from the huge vat. She fills the ladle and drizzles two tablespoons, not a drop more, into each tiny dish.

"Each banh beo should fit perfectly in the mouth, not so thick and intrusive that it throws off the balance of the toppings," she explains while putting the lid back on the steamer. "Sit down, it will be done in a few seconds."

I comply, but my eyes never leave the steamer. Watching her cook makes me think about how I used to help my mother make this dish. Mom made it basically the same way, but she enriched with a little coconut milk. In South Vietnam, cooks often use coconuts--which are plentiful there--to give more body to batters, soups and stews.

Sometimes, when Mom didn't have enough round dishes, she'd use porcelain spoons instead. To me, the oval shape looks nicer and the higher puffed-up edges help keep the sauce in place better.

Here in Hue, the banh beo is eaten from the dish in which it is steamed. In other regions they're removed from the spoons and served on a plate. At Quan Ba Do, each person is served a tray with about dozen dishes, all brushed with scallion oil and garnished with shredded shrimp.

To eat, I drizzle on nuoc cham dipping sauce and use a long-handled teaspoon--not chopsticks, as Nguyen reminds me--to lift both the banh beo and the sauce. The rice cake is soft and succulent. The shrimp, freshly caught, has a sweet, almost buttery flavor.

"This sauce is so delicate and delicious," I cry. "Is it the basic nuoc cham recipe?"

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