Before coming to Hue, we had heard that the city was the perfect place to partake in imperial-style banquets featuring a range of specialty foods linked to the city’s regal heritage.
We were eager to splash out on one of these royal feasts in the name of “research,” but once we started talking to locals and looking around at the offerings, we began to question whether these banquets were really high-priced tourist buffets in disguise.
So in an act of culinary resistance, we took to the streets, walking and biking for hours trying to figure out where the food was. Much of Hue cuisine seemed to be second rate food geared towards tourists. And then, while biking around the backstreets near the eastern walls of the Citadel, something rather fortunate happened. It started to pour down rain and we were forced to take shelter under the blue tarp of a street vendor, where we made a rather profound discovery: in the city of kings, it just might be best to eat like peasants.
As the streets began to flood and our blue tarp struggled against the rain, we feasted on our first authentic bun bo hue. The spicy local soup is made with heavy round noodles, chili, lemongrass and shrimp paste topped off with mung bean sprouts, lime, cilantro, banana flower and various meats including oxtail, beef or pork. Yum.
We ordered side dishes of hefty puffed-rice cakes, quail eggs and super-spicy nem, a savory treat made with meat steamed in banana leaves. (You might remember that we ate fish nem in Cambodia, but these were pork.)
The streets also provided us with another local favorite, banh khoai hue, which strongly resembles southern Vietnam’s banh xeo and is also eaten wrapped in lettuce or mustard leaves. Banh khoai hue is a smaller crispier pancake and seems to feature larger amounts of meat.
So when in Hue, let them eat puffed-rice cake…
And, of course, bun bo hue, banh khoai hue, nem lui, quail eggs, or anything else the peasants might be feasting on.