The story and process preparing a bowl of baby clam rice lets you know just how special Hue cuisine is.
Every year, tourists flock to the central town of Hue to gaze at ancient ruins and the imposing remnants of the former royal citadel.
During Vietnam's last dynasty, cooks in Hue developed a cuisine fit for a king. Today, many attribute the city's small, carefully plated portions to the discerning aesthetic of the royal court.
Cơm hến (rice with baby clams) presents an interesting case study of what makes a single dish uniquely Hue.
Cities and towns throughout central Vietnam prepare the dish using the same ingredients, but say that the dish must include baby clams harvested in Hue, because of their sweet, delicate flavor.
The dish first appeared on the tables of poor fishing families. But, by the time it made its way to the royal palace, it had become a complicated and fanciful meal -decorated with bright condiments and soaring spices.
Indeed, the process of making a good bowl of cơm hến is fairly labor intensive.
Discover the Hue-style dish in Ho Chi Minh City:
7 Cao Thang Street, District 3
7/1 Ky Dong Street, District 3
122B Tran Quoc Thao Street, District 3
10/14 Luong Huu Khanh Street, District 1.
Typically, the tiny clams are soaked in the same water used to rinse the rice, and chilies are sometimes added to the liquid to force the clams to give up their grit faster. The clams are boiled in the liquid, shelled and sautéed in fish sauce, garlic and chili powder.
Meanwhile, they add shrimp paste and ginger to the original broth after straining out the clam grit.
Everything is served atop cold, firm rice. Hot rice is eschewed to ensure that the bounty of fresh greens does not lilt.
Sour star fruit and bean sprouts add a crispness to the mix. Shredded banana flower, peppermint, laksa leaf, basil and lettuce provide a bright green bed for it all. Roasted peanuts, sesame seeds and deep fried pork skin may be added to the bowl for an added crunch.
Ultimately, cơm hến is said to be best enjoyed with a mouth on fire. As such, it's served up with a triumvirate of spice: pureed chili, minced chili in fish sauce and fresh chili slices.
The cool meal is best enjoyed with a side bowl of hot clam broth. Customers can expect to pay just VND30,000 for a bowl.
The dish can be easily found in restaurants and at street stalls in the ancient town of Hue.