The imperial Cuisine




Royale Dinner


Hue, situated on the banks of the tranquil Pertume River, is the third most visited Vietnamese City after Saigon and Hanoi. Once an important seat of learning and culture, as*well as the imperial seat for nearly 150 years, it is sỉowly being redis- covered. This rather sleepy place is also the very City vvhich once inspired the creation of most sophisticated Vietnamese cuisine, and took vegetarian cuisine to even greater heights than those reached by mastertul Chinese cheís. Hue traditionally served as a cultural, educational and religious center; it is the site of the country’s most important Buddhist monasteries and temples. It was also the political Capital of Vietnam, under the thirteen emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty. Major tourist attractions such as the Imperial Palace and the emperors’ tombs still suggest a time of great afflu- ence. Emperor Tu Duc (1848-1883), for example, whose expansive tomb retlects his once-opulent litestyle, is said to have demanded that his morning tea be made only from the drops of water collected by his servants from lotus leaves on the lake vvithin the Imperial City. Emperor Tu Duc was a notoriously tinicky eater, who demanded food that was markedly different from that eaten by commoners. Since Hue lacked the agricultural diversity, the imperial kitchens were required to show an enormous amount of ingenuity—retining ordinary dishes until they became something truly special, so that eating could be vievved as art, ritual and sensory pleasure at the same time. Tea-drinking was also elevated to a ceremony laden vvith intellectual meaning and aesthetic signiticance.

A typical imperial banquet today vvould include a dozen dishes, such as a tragrant, peppery chicken soup with lotus seeds (;sup ga), crisp, golden brown spring rolls {nem ran), delicate rice ílour patties stuffed with minced shrimp {banh Hue), grilled pork in rice paper (thitnuong) served with peanut sauce, delicious crab clavvs stutted with pork {cua phich bot), and the tamous minced shrimp vvrapped around sugar cane (cha tom lui mia), known in the south as chao tom. Main dishes might include fish grilled in banana leaf (ca nuong la chuoi), pungent beef in wild betel leaves (bo la lot), rice with vegetables (com Hue), gently sautéed shrimp with mushrooms (tom xao hanh nam), and tinally the glutinous rice dessert (phu the), literally translates as husband-and-wife cake. These dishes are actually variations of those served in other parts of Vietnam, and the ingredients may be simple vegetables, eggs or fish, rather than exotic sea delicacies or the best cuts of meat. What sets these dishes apart is the sophisticated cooking techniques and the presentation. For example, the tavorite chao tom seems so simple you vvould never guess the complexity of its preparation. The tiny shrimp are caretully shelled beíore marinating in nuoc mam. After washing, they are pounded to a thick paste, and mix vvith egg vvhite, onion, g-arlic, sugar and pepper. The mixture is pounded again vvith a touch of pork fat, and tinally wrapped around sugar cane sticks and grilled. Appearance was very important, not only in the use of color and the arrangement on the plate, but also in the man- ner of serving. Rice, for example, might have been draped with a generous omelet coat, or cooked inside a lotus leaf and turther enhanced with lotus seeds. Chefs also experi- mented with unusual ingredients such as green banana and unripe figs, banana blossoms and green corn, vvhich until then had been considered unpalatable. Portions were delicate, with perhaps dozens of dishes served in the course of one meal. Emperor Tu Duc vvas said to order 50 different dishes every meal, prepared by 50 dif- terent cooks and served by 50 ditterent servants. If it was possible to reduce the size of a cake or a bun, it was done. Banh khoai, for example, is a smaller version of the banh xeo so popular in the South. Even the vegetables mixed with rice are chopped into the smallest pieces possible. All these requirements naturally increased the length of preparation time, with the result that the number of cooks and kitchen staff reached unprecedented heights—a luxury vvhich pertectly betitted the privileged lite of an emperor. The most talented proponents of imperial cuisine today are virtually all vvornen, each of them descended by some route or other from imperial households. Skills were painstak- ingly passed down in extended tamilies, with young cooks- to-be encouraged to first observe an experienced cook betore being invited to try their hand at actual preparation. Due to its size and relatively small population, Hue today is not a culinary mecca compared with Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi. There is, hovvever, a renevved interest in the cuisine of Hue, and a number of modern Vietnamese chefs have made it their mission to turn the simple art of cooking into something extraordinary, and restore imperial cuisine to its former glory.

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