A Food Lover's Travel Guide to the Best of Vietnamese Food

Vietnam's Food Capital: Huế and its Specialty Dishes

Nem lui, a specialty of Hue cuisine.

The city of Hue has a ton of interesting history. It was once the capital of Vietnam. In fact, it was the first city to be capital when the country was finally united from China to the Gulf of Thailand. Chosen for its strategic location (in the middle of the country), Hue was named the capital by Gia Long, the first emperor of Vietnam's last dynasty, the Nguyen dynasty. Gia Long moved to Hue and immediately started construction of the Hue Citadel, the Hue Imperial City, and the Forbidden Purple City, where he and his family lived. Over the course of the next 150 years, there were many emperors, and - thankfully - they all liked food. A meal could consist of 50 courses. Several hundred men were recruited to hunt, fish, and gather. The best ingredients from all over Vietnam was sent in. The courses were small, and served on porcelain saucers decorated with the famous "Hue blue". The cooks were usually from the village of Phuoc Yen, where the Nguyens had devoted support. Eunuchs would bring the food to the emperor, because sexually active men couldn't be trusted around the emperor's concubines. Every dish would be tasted by a food taster to insure it wasn't poisoned. When the emperor was ready to eat, special chopsticks that turned color upon contact with poison were used only once per bite.

Of course, not all the dishes have survived since the fall of the empire. Some, like the south's crocodiles, are just not available anymore, but some of the really special dishes, the ones that had ingredients that the normal Vietnamese person could get and that were very delicious, are now popular in Hue and the rest of Vietnam.

Here's a selection of the must-try dishes if you are visiting Hue (click the title for more details):

Banh Beo or Steamed Rice Cakes

Banh Beo

Steamed Rice Cakes

Small circular blobs of steamed rice flour are used to hold ground shrimp or pork, along with some complimentary ingredients like scallions, mung bean paste, cucumber, pickled daikon and carrot, toasted bread crumbs, or small pork crackling bits. They are usually dipped or covered in sweet fish sauce with chili.

Banh Khoai or Hue Happy pancakes

Banh Khoai

Happy Pancake

Before there was banh xeo, an emperor in Hue's Forbidden City was eating one of these delicious pork and shrimp filled pancakes. They're similar to the more popular and larger banh xeo, but in many ways they're quite different.

Bun Bo Hue or Hue Style Beef Noodle Soup

Bun Bo Hue

Hue Style Beef Noodle Soup

A beef soup that's spicier than pho, has a lemongrass infused broth, and uses thicker, round rice noodles. It usually contains slices of beef shank, and sometimes chunks of pig's feet, congealed pork blood, and cha lua (Vietnamese pork loaf).

Com hen or baby basket clams and rice

Com Hen

Baby Basket Clams and Rice

A Hue specialty, this dish combines tiny clams or mussels with rice, and a collection of flavours that will make you want more. It's served with a small bowl of clam broth that can be sipped or spooned on.

Nem lui Hue, a specialty of Hue - grilled meat with lemongrass

Nem Lui

Lemongrass Skewers

Sometimes pork, sometimes pork and beef, is seasoned with garlic, salt, pepper, sugar, fish sauce, and I'm sure some secret ingredients, then wrapped around a stalk of lemongrass and grilled to perfection.