The Marvellous Foods of Hue

Join us on a little food tour through Hue, where the best food of Vietnam originates from.

Bun Bo Hue in HueBun Bo Hue in Hue | photo: Frank Fox (cc-by-sa)

The Marvellous Foods of Hue

We know there are three types of cuisine in Vietnam. The North has salty, savoury dishes, while in the South people prefer the food to be sweet-ish. And then there is the food of Hue. Hue food is special in many ways, but the most interesting part is, the people like it strong and spicy. Just take a look at this little basket here, serving chilies and raw garlic aside. You just peel a clove of garlic and eat it like so.

Chili and garlic basketChili and garlic basket | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Bun Bo Hue

But let's start at the beginning and with the most famous dish from Hue - Bun Bo Hue. Bun Bo Hue are white "bun" noodles with different kinds of beef (hence the name element "bo" = beef), Vietnamese sausage, coagulated blood (made into some sort of cake with the help of what I believe is glutinous rice powder) and other interesting ingredients.

Bun Bo Hue Bun Bo Hue | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Back in Saigon, Bun Bo Hue is a rich and savoury noodle soup. However the original is much lighter and by far the least strong type of food we had during our two stays in the city. It almost seems the locals use it as a kind of refreshing soup, while in Saigon they make it stronger because everything else is so bland.

While I do prefer other noodle dishes in Vietnam (to name mi quang) and even pho, if just for it's resemblance to regular Rindsuppe (beef broth) I know from home, bun bo are a must try when you are in the old imperial city Hue. The sausage in our bowl was of exceptional quality and the blood pudding of a slimy, creamy yet a bit adhesive consistency. The stuff I had in Saigon was too hard, rubbery and even squeaked when chewed. This one was perfect. Don't expect it to taste like black pudding or Blunzen from back home. This one is much simpler, but blends in nicely with the broth and the other ingredients.

Bun Bo HueBun Bo Hue | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

To pep up your Hue experience, do yourself the favour and add some of the half dry chili paste aside to your dish. The baguette is for dipping if needed and the greens are good for you.

The place we found out and deemed worth a visit is near the post office.

Banh KhoaiBanh Khoai | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Banh Khoai

Another amazing dish of Hue are proper banh khoai, something like crispy fried pancakes, filled with Vietnamese sausage, shrimps and sprouts. You use the rice paper to make a roll of a piece of the banh khoai, vegetables and what else you find on the table that you consider close to your foodie heart. The finished roll you dip in the peanut sauce and gobble it down as if there is no tomorrow.

How to serve banh khoaiHow to serve banh khoai | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Aside come as usual here raw chilies, garlic, vegetables and in our case also nem. There are many kinds of nem around, some being fried spring rolls, other raw sausage type of things and others, like the ones in the picture are grilled mince on a stick. In one case the stick has been replaced with lemongrass stalks which turned out really delicious.

Nem on lemongrassNem on lemongrass | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

We tried two banh khoai restaurants in Hue and both can be considered excellent. Here we go..

Banh Khoai Hong MaiBanh Khoai Hong Mai | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Tai Phu RestaurantTai Phu Restaurant | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Banh KhoaiBanh Khoai | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

The speciality of Hue when it comes to this dish are the ingredients of the sauce. Minced pork liver and peanuts. The vegetables served with it contain starfruit (carambole) and a spacial local type of fig called vả.

Nem again, this time in a different restaurantNem again, this time in a different restaurant | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

About the name bánh khoái:
Now, first let's write the name properly: bánh khoái. Rising tones. I am aware that I am extremely sloppy when it comes to the various accents they use in the Vietnamese language. Partially because I want to write in a flow and cannot type some of the accents. That means I have to search (without the accents, often I don't get the desired result at all, especially with local dialect words as they often appear when it comes to food) on Google and then copy & paste the word as I did with vả up there.
The other reason is the display ability of various browsers and fonts. What sense does it make to write it if half of my visitors cannot display it.

Banh khoai sauce in HueBanh khoai sauce in Hue | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

However in this case we basically have to think about the name a bit more, because khoai without the accent means potato, yet there are no potatoes in bánh khoái. In fact there are two theories where the name actually comes from.

Some people say khoái is the Hue version of khói, which means smoke and refers to the steam that escapes during the cooking process of this delicious treat.
Other people claim the roots lie in khoái, meaning to be attracted to something because of it's rich taste and delicious look.
Another possibility is the proximity of the word khoái to khẩu (see, had to search, copy & paste this one and I don't even know if you can see it...) meaning mouth, so basically a pleasant feeling in the mouth...

Banh KhoaiBanh Khoai | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Etymology in Vietnamese is equally complicated as it is in German I suppose.

Nem grilled on lemongrass stalksNem grilled on lemongrass stalks | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Che Hem is the most famous sweet soup shop in HueChe Hem is the most famous sweet soup shop in Hue | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Che Hem

One of the most popular sweet dishes in Vietnam is che - sweet soup. In short it's some sort of syrup, crushed ice and a variety of tasty bits in there. It ranges from cooked beans over lotus seeds, tapioca, sticky rice balls, fruits and other, even more eclectic treats. Che Hem basically means che in the alley and the've been around for ages. You can have a variety of sweet soups there, but my favourite are the chewy coconut pearls.

The favourite sweet soup of the kingThe favourite sweet soup of the king | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Pork Sweet SoupPork Sweet Soup | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Their speciality is a certain type of tapioca pearls that enclose crispy pork, mushroom and herbs. Now what a weird combination you will think and I confess, it appears to be odd. Nonetheless it is delicious and you should have tried it at least once. Mind that this dish was the favourite of the king himself and rumour has it - strictly reserved for his majesty only.

Coconut Tapioca Sweet SoupCoconut Tapioca Sweet Soup | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Fortunately in our time anyone can be king or queen and here it costs you 10.000đ only.

Price List Che HemPrice List Che Hem | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Here, Sang translated them for you, so you know what to order when you are there:

  • Red Bean
  • White Bean
  • Green Bean & Coconut
  • Green Bean (whole)
  • Sticky Rice Balls
  • Fruit Mix
  • Corn
  • Banana
  • Lotus Seeds

  • Jelly
  • Coconut Jelly
  • Taro
  • Coconut Pearls
  • Roast Pork Pearls
  • Mixed

Simple kitchen, elaborate foodSimple kitchen, elaborate food | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Bun Hen / Com Hen

As we know already, bun are white noodles while com is steamed or boiled rice. And "hen" is the name for baby clams they fish out of the river (Or ocean? Or delta? The lagoon? Gotta find out I suppose).

Bun HenBun Hen | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

This time we got our bun hen fix for 10.000đ from a local street vendor. You know, one of the old ladies crouching on the sidewalk. The content of clams was low (what to expect for 10.000ð?), but nonetheless the dish was delicious. A perfect balance of spicy, salty, sweet and sour. You add some chilli paste for more kick or some mam ruoc (a type of shrimp paste from tiny shrimps) for extra savouriness. Et voila, tastesplosion!

Bun Hen VendorBun Hen Vendor | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

If you can't find the right bun hen vendor, go to Con Hen, the island in the Perfume River where we believe the dish originates. There are kitchens everywhere and you can get a really good bowl of the stuff. Also when you set foot on the island after a couple metres you see a primary school to the right and opposite you find a kitchen that serves a lot of different Hue cakes.
Try it, you must!
Says Master Yoga.

Street VendorStreet Vendor | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Here is a photo of the Island I took from the roof of our hotel. To the right you can see a small bridge in the distance

Con Hen the clam island in the Perfume RiverCon Hen the clam island in the Perfume River | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Banh Mi at the bridge

Now this time we didn't have time, but last time in the evening we went to the park next to the main bridge. By nightfall some ladies turn up at this little pavilion to sell their special kind of small banh mi, stuffed with all kinds of goodies. Apart from the fact that their baskets not only contain the breads and ingredients, there is also a clay pot of glowing embers nested between the stuff and the breads are stacked around the pot to stay warm and crispy. These are easily the best banh mi in all of Vietnam and a must eat before you head for the night market.

Snails from the lagoonSnails from the lagoon | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

More Hue Food

Of course there is much more to discover and once I have my research complete, this article will be expanded.

Snail KitchenSnail Kitchen | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

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