My colleague from Hue insisted that I've not experienced *true* Vietnamese cuisine until I've had Imperial Hue cuisine, purportedly more refined than other regional cuisines in Vietnam, and whose finesse reflect the exacting demands of Tu Duc (1829-1883), the 4th Nguyen emperor and a die-hard gourmand in his time.
For lunch today, my Hue colleague brought me to Quán Ruốc, reputedly one of the top spots in Saigon to have a true taste of Imperial Hue cuisine. This very popular Hue restaurant is owned by the famous Saigon-based writer-poet-artist, Mường Mán, and is more than a decade-old.
The restaurant is named after the pungent, addictive shrimp paste from Hue: mắm ruốc. Westerners may be turned off by the salty, overwhelming fishy flavour (and heavy smell) of mắm ruốc, but to people like me who loved "belachan" (our own shrimp paste in Singapore), the smell was absolutely mouth-watering.
Each table has a tray of tasty banana leaf-wrapped món khai vị (hors d'œuvres). There were 3 types to choose from:
- Tré, unwrapped: it consisted of pig's ears, galangal, sesame seeds, fermented pork, guava leaves and garlic, blended together to give tré its trademark flavour.
- Nem is pate-like fermented pork and sourish in taste.
- Chả bò: a very tasty, pale-coloured beef sausage.
A selection of steamed rice cakes:
- Bánh ướt tôm cháy: steamed, flat rice rolls with grilled shrimp (similar to Chinese "cheung fun").
- Bánh nậm: rice cake filled with grilled shrimps.
- Bánh bột lọc: steamed dumplings with pork and shrimp (almost similar to Singaporean "soon kueh"), tinged reddish-brown with annatto seeds.
- Bánh bèo: small, saucer-shaped steamed rice cakes, topped with dried shrimps and pork crackling (similar to Singaporean "chwee kway").
This trademark Hue delicacy is absolutely unmissable: parts of the cow's mouth, eaten with a salad of bittergourd, starfruit, mint leaves & Hue figs (smaller & sweeter than Saigon ones) - very tasty when dipped into mắm ruốc/shrimp paste.
Powdered chilli was provided to be mixed into the mắm ruốc and was super-spicy: Hue cuisine is perhaps a few hundred thousand rungs above Saigon on the Scoville range when it comes to spiciness.
Another signature Hue delicacy, though my colleague explained that the version here is a non-spicy one, an inexplicable departure from the usual Hue rendition where it's very spicy.
Món bún giấm nuốc - a staple Hue summer noodle dish of thick rice vermicelli (roughly the same as Singapore laksa noodles) topped with crunchy, thick jelly-fish slices (from Hue, and very difficult to procure in Saigon), pork, shrimps, rice crackers studded with black sesame seeds, groundnuts, finely-julienned curls of banana blossom, mint leaves and coriander.
Accompanying the noodles is a small bowl of sourish seafood soup with crabmeat quenelles, wafer-thin pineapple slices, cherry tomatoes, scallions and coriander. The "traditional" Hue way to consume this is to finish the noodles first, then proceed to the soup, although some Viet diners would pour the soup over the noodles. Either way, it's absolutely scrumptious.
I'm a sucker for pig's blood, so this dish is irresistible for me.
Hue cuisine do not favour the sweet flavours much loved by the Southerners and Saigonites. Conversely, its selection of dessert also pales in comparison, and seemed limited to sweet soups containing syrupy legumes and beans, called chè.
145A Nguyễn Đình Chính, Phường 11,
Quận Phú Nhuận, TP. Ho Chi Minh City
Tel: +84 838463614