Hue food reminds one of not only sophisticated royal dishes but also simple culinary delights made of the best ingredients from river, green field and mountain in this former capital of Vietnam.
Be it a royal dinner or a simple bánh bèo, Hue food does not merely fill the stomach, it delights discerning palates that appreciate flavor, style and sophistication.
Among the many restaurants serving Hue food in Ho Chi Minh City, Nam Giao is the most famous. Set in a lane off Le Thanh Ton Street near Ben Thanh Market, Nam Giao is named after an open-air altar stage built in Hue in early 19th century where the kings of the Nguyen Dynasty performed offering ritual ceremony in the Spring to honor the Heaven and the Earth.
The cacophony of motorbike horns and market sellers fades away as one enters this restaurant. Though it is packed most of the time, the interiors of the restaurant are peaceful, relaxing, even intimate.
In a small garret on the second floor, diners sit on a wooden floor around a narrow bamboo table feasting on Hue specialties.
The restaurant is popular among not only locals, but also expats and tourists looking for authentic Hue cuisine. And Nam Giao has plenty of those.
136/15 Le Thanh Ton Street, District 1, HCMC
116 Suong Nguyet Anh Street, District 1, HCMC
The restaurant's menu boasts of more than a hundred dishes, from appetizers to entreés, snacks and desserts.
Hordes of Hue food lovers throng to Nam Giao for its exquisite bánh bèo (a fern-shaped cake), gỏi cuốn (spring roll) and mít trộn (jackfruit salad).
"I often head to Nam Giao with close friends for dinner. I also like to introduce authentic Hue food to my expat friends," said Nguyen Thu Van, a fashion designer.
The most popular dishes on the menu are mít trộn, cơm hến and bánh bèo all of which take much care and time to prepare in the kitchen.
To make mít trộn, young jackfruit is boiled for hours before being chopped finely. Other ingredients such as thinly sliced boiled shrimp and pork, rau răm (smartweed), fish sauce and lime are prepared meanwhile. Everything is tossed together in a wok with a spoonful of oil, and roasted sesame and nuts are added to create mít trộn.
The boiled and sliced jackfruit has neutrality that absorbs the various flavors of pork, shrimp, crunchy nuts and sesame. Mít trộn is a dish truly representative of Hue cuisine.
Cơm hến is a country dish of rice and baby clams, preferably harvested from Huong Giang, or Hue's Perfume River.
Separating the tiny clams from their shells is a tedious and time-consuming process. To make cơm hến, the shelled clams are boiled and added to rice, which is cooked in the clam broth. Slices of banana flowers, star fruit, bean sprouts, mint and other herbs provide flavor and texture.
Sliced chili, fried nuts and fried pork fat are added to the mix, and the dish is served with a spicy clam broth.
Bánh bèo is another popular dish. To make it, boiled rice powder is poured into dozens of tiny bowls, then ruốc tôm (powdered shrimp), fried spring onion and small pieces of pork crackling are sprinkled on the surface. Bánh bèo is served with sweet and sour fish sauce fortified with sliced chili. It's an eye-catching dish owing to the contrasting colors and the arrangement of bowls on a round bamboo plate.
Hue food is made of ingredients from a land of diverse geography and oozes love of family.
Most people come to Nam Giao to enjoy Hue flavors with their families and friends. For others, this restaurant is a place to reminisce about time spent and flavors discovered in the former feudal capital city.