Hue

Introducing the Best Breakfast in Existence: Bun Bo Hue

I take breakfast very seriously. I am the kind of person that wakes up hungry, probably having dreamt about food all night long. I will sacrifice sleep, waking up early, to make sure that I have time for an unhurried breakfast.

In northern Vietnam, people typically eat phở for breakfast. I ate it almost every day while in the north- I love how the noodles fill you up, the broth rehydrates you for the day, and I think the rising steam even opens the pores of your skin.

Huế, however, has a culinary competitor to phở- bún bò Huế. Anthony Bourdain, again, is famous for his claim that bún bò Huế is the better version of its northern relative, phở. And I am here to throw my weight with Bourdain- bún bò Huế may be the best breakfast ever.

In all its glory,  bún bò Huế

There is something magical that lies in the combination of all its ingredients- rice vermicelli, the spicy, salty, sour beef broth, the fermented shrimp sauce that is a little bit sweet, the lemongrass, the different hunks of meat that are all steaming hot and fatty. Then there is the side plate of cilantro, green onions, thin slices of banana flower, various herbs, and all the other side vinegars, chilis, and fish sauces. The many parts combine to make a magnificent whole.

I have found my new favorite breakfast. Now, to try to find someone to teach me how to cook it!

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Home Cooked Feast

There is something beautiful, and yet completely ordinary, in home kitchens. No other room in a house is so lived in, so full of everyday energy. I’ve always loved how kitchens anchor a household, how people gather in the center and give it warmth. Whenever I am given an opportunity to learn from someone in their home kitchen, I feel very lucky.

A few days ago, I cooked with a new friend’s mother, Lien, in her home. Her kitchen had that same lived-in feeling that I associate with the warm, kind families in my life.

Though we didn’t share a common language, I find that cooking often doesn’t require a translator (though, I must admit, a few ingredients remain absolute mysteries to me). Everyone has their own rhythm in preparations, and Lien was a purposeful and skilled cook. Throughout the preparations, she always made sure to pause and confirm that I was following her- how she separated the crab meat for broth, how the soup looked the moment she took it off the heat, when to add each ingredient and how much seasoning.

Crushing crabs, to add to water and sift to create a broth

Adding shrimp sauce before grilling fish to perfection

The much-spoken of “bitter mushrooms”, which are only available in a certain season with certain weather in Hue. These are an ingredient that only experienced chefs would use.

Cooks like Lien have a rhythm to their cooking that is so patient and calm, speaking to years of experience. I was so happy to be able to spend the afternoon with her and share the joy of preparing a meal.

Extraordinary!

Closeup of the crab soup, with shallots, coconut oil, and many different types of green herbs (most start with rau)- these flavors were so completely new to me, I had no words to describe them!

Grilled fish

As her son put it, Lien is always cooking “like for a football team”. It was true- I couldn’t believe how much food we had cooked and shared. I joked that I wished that I had two stomachs, so that I could finish dinner. She smiled, and then slyly gave me a bag of still-steaming bánh nậm to take home.

Lien and I, her proud of her meal, and me still in awe at what we just created.

The Royal City: Hue, Vietnam

Finally- a city that appeals to my royal proclivities. Huế is an ancient capital of Vietnam, being the center of the Nguyễn dynasty in the 17th through 19th centuries. It is a quieter city than Hanoi, with beautiful rivers and parks everywhere you go. The ancient tombs and ruins here draw in many tourists eager to see an old kingdom. However, even on my third day here, I have yet to explore any ruins- I’ve been too busy eating. For as well-known and photogenic as the Imperial Citadel is, I have priorities here.

photo taken from VietnamDiscoveries.com

Thanks to a wonderful couchsurfing network, I’ve connected with a few local Vietnamese people for different meals. I think that something about my genuine interest in authentic Huế food speaks to people here- everyone has been very kind, giving me literal lists of different dishes to try. There are more suggestions than I could ever follow.

The sheer number of Hue dishes is extraordinary. The old kings supposedly refused to eat the same dish more than a few times a year, forcing the cooks to create innumerable variations on traditional cuisine. Some people number “Hue cuisine” to contain over 1,500 unique dishes.

Anthony Bourdain traveled here a few years ago, filming an episode of Parts Unknown in Hue (these videos are quite good- I now understand his enthusiasm). Many local people have talked to me about this episode, though I have yet to find a way to watch it online. However, yesterday, I had the pleasure of visiting one of the restaurants at which Bourdain had eaten with a new friend. We arrived at the tiny building, tucked away in a residential neighborhood, for lunch. It reminded me of those restaurants in Japan that lack a sign or publicity, instead relying on word of mouth among those in the know.

As we sat down, my friend asked the most magical question I have ever heard: “so you want to eat what the kings ate?”

Bánh bèo, a steamed rice cake covered in crispy bits of beans, fried meat, and seafood. Best covered in fish sauce and chilis.

We started with the classic dish, bánh bèo, a dish that I think I could eat for the rest of my life. Then there were a multiplicity of other rice cakes wrapped in different types of leaves, steamed for hours before arriving in front of us. Again, I find that Vietnamese food contains so many different types of textures- each rice cake contained some new combination, waiting to be covered in fish sauce.

Some are steamed in lá dong, others in banana leaves

My personal favorite, with pork, shrimp, and onions steamed in la don0g

Another, filled with crunchy shrimp from the nearby river- what a mix of textures!

We finished the meal with bánh ram ít, a crunchy, steamy, bite-sized puff of deliciousness (that I somehow failed to take a picture of! It will be ordered again).

I felt so wonderfully content, leaving that restaurant, knowing that I have days left for culinary exploration with new friends in this fascinating city. Already, I have expanded my palate so much that I think it will never be the same. This must be how to live like a king!