Less Accessible Hue Foods

Here we have a selection of food we ate during our stay in Hue and Phu Loc. Most of the meals are home cooked though, so I excluded them from the food tour post.

Vegetarian cuisine in HueVegetarian cuisine in Hue | photo: Frank Fox (cc-by-sa)

Proper KitchenCooking with open fire | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Homemade foods and more in Hue

Now we leave the stuff behind that is easily obtainable because they have it at restaurants and kitchens in Hue. If you came here because you wanted a foodie guide through the city, search no further but look in our Hue food guide before you go and eat your way through Vietnam's foodie paradise.
However, as I remarked already, this time the main purpose of coming to Hue was not the city itself, but the small village Phu Loc - the origin of my wife's family. We spent a couple days visiting all the exciting local landmarks, meeting the clan and participating in traditional ceremonies.

Home cooked food from HueHome cooked food from Hue | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Writing about the landmarks and ceremonies I reserve for another article, but all sorts of celebrations go hand in hand with - you guessed it - food. So here we go, the master skills of Hue housewives.

Vegetable market Phu LocVegetable market Phu Loc | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Phu Loc Local Market

While in Saigon on the various markets as a foreigner you are either a normal customer or a target to rip off, here everything is different. I have no doubts that for many people I was the first European they have ever seen. Now this market is a great opportunity to witness the actual everyday life of the people and enjoy specialities of the region you cannot get anywhere else.

Buying great duriansBuying great durians | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Like this lady here, she is selling two different kinds of traditional cakes one has to try when in the area. On the way out we get a bag of small but lovely durians. I know many people cannot stand them, but I am an addict.

Different banh type of dishes at the local marketDifferent banh type of dishes at the local market | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

BanhBanh | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Banana vendor at the local market in Phu LocBanana vendor at the local market in Phu Loc | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Lady selling cakes at the local marketLady selling cakes at the local market | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Fresh SquidFresh Squid | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Fresh Squid at the Seaside

Here we dropped by the beach where the fishermen in these sleek boats set off at night and return with a boatload (well, I don't know about overfishing when it comes to these animals) of tasty squid. A few steps away from the shore there is a very simple palm frond roof, some tables and a house with kitchen where you can buy some drinks and the freshest and tastiest boiled squid. Seriously delicious and with our small durians for dessert, a perfect meal to keep us going until we reached the necropolis.

Fresh SquidFresh Squid | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Banh It Hue for BreakfastBanh It Hue for Breakfast | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Bánh It Hue

Bánh it usually refers to a different kind of sticky rice cake, but in Hue they are prepared the way you see on the photo here.

Banh It HueBanh It Hue | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

We separate a cluster of the small and absolutely delicious cakes and squeeze them between two layers of crispy rice paper. This sandwich we dip in a preparation of fish sauce. A hearty breakfast.

How to eat banh it HueHow to eat banh it Hue | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

The army of aunties

Usually a man's place in Vietnam is not really the kitchen. Cooking is the job of the women and that way they hand down their culinary art from generation to generation. During celebrations like the one we attended, the women of the family gather in the kitchen to cook together, exchange recipes, gossip and generally have a good and productive time. I tend to believe that in the days of yonder many a marriage had been forged during occasions like this, but that just as a cultural sidenote1. Humans be humans, whether they are Vietnamese or Noric.

Cooking Aunties in HueCooking Aunties in Hue | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Me being me, I could not 100% turn my nose away from the magic that happened in the kitchen, where an army of aunties created the most delicious (vegetarian) morsels while happily chattering away. My interest in the wood fired cooking place outside the house made them giggle and me showing even more interest in the preparation methods they found most intriguing. A man that cooks is a rare bird in Vietnam.
However, the most interesting revelation was one of the aunties who made a millet pudding after the recipe of her late mother. She said what ever she tries, she just cannot get it the same way her mom used to make it. That reminded me so much of my own attempts to exactly copy my grandma's food.

Innards as midnight snackInnards as midnight snack | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

This vegetable here is called vẳ. It looks like some kind of fig or small pumpkin and is a big deal here in Hue. You roll your bánh khoai or prepare it like here, where it's eaten with crispy rice paper. That stuff is so good, I cleared 2 plates of it by myself. Vẳ is actually a close relative of what all Austrians know and love to receive dried for Krampus: Figs!

Ceremonies that are particularly concerned with death usually require vegetarian food. Fortunately our aunties are very skilled in preparing meatless dishes. Especially Hue cuisine with its spicy and savoury flavour notes is quite suitable for veggie dishes. I didn't miss the meat at all.

Banh Gai with TeaBanh Gai with Tea | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Bánh Gai

And last but not least, my favourite Vietnamese cake: bánh gai, which translates to "thorn cake".
For years now, every time my dad in law went back to visit his birthplace, he returned with gifts. Among them a bunch of these dark and slightly sweet, steamed cakes with their green bean filling, chewy consistency and somehow more fibrous texture, which sets them apart from all other types of sticky rice cakes.

Banh GaiBanh Gai | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

The fine, subtle taste and interesting mouthfeel is the reason I am a huge fan of these. When my wife told me they are made of a plant that grows in her hometown and is not available in Saigon at all, it just increased my curiosity. This time our dad guided me into the underbrush of the roadside and we picked the plant, la gai, for later identification.

Lá gai is what we usually know as ramie2, a relative of our stinging nettles that is mainly used in Asia as a fibre plant for textile production. These fibres are also responsible for the interesting mouthfeel of the cake.

RamieRamie | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

How to make bánh gai, you ask?
Well, I did not have time for an actual apprenticeship with all the aunties, but the procedure is as follows:
The leaves first get their tough ribs removed, then they are cut and muddled. The juice is pressed out and discarded. The leftover pulp gets boiled, mixed up with a little sugar and just the right amount of sticky rice flour and water to form a thick dough. You roll out the dough and make little dumplings, each filled with approximately one teaspoon of green bean flour. In the end you wrap them up in big bamboo leaves and steam them.
Of course, like all sticky rice recipes, this one is harder to pull off than it sounds, so we need to practice.

This plant here (lá cây bông bụp) is quite interesting as well, and auntie Hien told me that adding this together with the base herb makes the cake taste even better. They also made an infusion from it which tasted quite interesting. Yet I prefer regular green tea in this case.

Lá cây bông bụp is what we know as hibiscus rosa-sinensis, or Chinese hibiscus3.

Hibiscus LeavesHibiscus Leaves | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

By the way, the real bánh gai as I know them are only available in Hue and maybe other countryside places. The stuff in Saigon is mostly fake with food colouring and artificial flavours, so don't fall for it.

Now I am pretty sure there are tons of interesting foods and recipes waiting to be discovered, but we didn't have the time to dive in further. Comes more time, comes more content.

Banana VendorBanana Vendor | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Remarks, links & sources

[1] Clan gatherings also served as an occasion to see whom NOT to marry. Especially in Hue you are not supposed to marry anyone with even so much as the same surname to prevent the negative side effects of inbreeding. More about clan or family gatherings and culture you can find in a more specific article.

[2] Ramie (Wildfibres)

[3] Hibiscus rosa-sinensis

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