Thursday, November 6, 2008

A full belly

The food in Hue is reknowned because of a particular king who must have been either constantly hungry, bored or picky. Whatever the reason, it is due to his orders to be served 50 different dishes by 50 different chefs at each meal that Hue has such delicious offerings today.

My personal dining experiences in the city ran the gamut from street to royalty.

I arrived quite early in the morning after an overnight bus ride to pouring rain and promptly showered before falling into bed. (Note: it is next to impossible to get a good night sleep on a bus, even one with long reclining seats. It's a hard lesson that I learned more than once.)

I was astounded when I woke up a few hours later to find that the rain hadn't stopped or even slowed, and the roads had been transformed into rivers as a result. I felt a bit like I was in the Oregon Trail, Vietnam Edition, as I forded the river crossing the street, nearly losing my shoe in the process.

Happily, I survived without losing any oxen or contracting cholera, so I was able to enjoy a big steaming bowl of pho bo while watching people struggle by on motorbikes whose engines had flooded. Quite an entertaining way to pass a few hours.

Once the rain finally subsided, I struck off for the Citadel, Hue's very own walled palace. I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring this enormous and bewitching complex, stumbling upon ornate temples and playrooms in pristine condition only to turn the next corner to find a palace in complete shambles. The Citadel is an intriguing place where I could easily have spent an entire additional day wandering about.

Starving, Petar (my travel buddy) and I made our way to my favorite kind of restaurant: a stall just off (or on) the street. You know the type, plastic chairs and short tables filled with locals slurping and chattering, a kitchen rigged up outside with one wok and two cooks and a menu only if you're very very lucky. The kind of restaurants where you point at something someone else is eating, then make a #1 sign with your fingers, the eloquent yet universal way of saying "I'd like one of whatever he's having, please."

The following day I decided to treat myself to one of the Lonely Planet guidebook "our picks". Y Thao Garden offers only one dining option, an eight course set menu for $10. Broke my budget, but oh, was it worth it.

I now have to take a moment to beg your apologies, because I forgot to bring my camera to this amazing lunch to end all lunches. I know, I know, completely idiotic, but what can you do? Perhaps someday I'll learn to be a proper food blogger and have my camera onhand at all times.

Maybe I should mention that Hue food is known as not just being tasty, but also very decorative and well-presented. Because maybe then you won't be as shocked when I mention that our first course consisted of fried pork spring rolls skewered onto a pineapple peacock whose wings and head were made of carved carrots. I did mention that it was a bit over the top, didn't I?

Our next course was a vegetable soup with the most delicious broth I've ever had created strictly from vegetables. It was enough to motivate a girl to finally getting around to making homemade broth.

Third course consisted of freshly steamed whole prawns served with a delicious lemon and salt & pepper dipping sauce. Simple, fresh, perfect.

Four course was a sort of Asian taco. A deep-fried rice pancake was filled with pork, prawn, mung beans and mushrooms, and served with a peanut and coconut dipping sauce. Delicious, if a bit greasy.

The fifth course was the most unusual. It was described as fig salad, but what came out was not what I had pictured (I was thinking quartered figs with proscuitto and goat cheese, my only previous experiences with fig salads, and delicious ones at that). Anyway, what arrived was finally diced figs, peanuts, mint, prawn, sesame seeds...and possibly other things that I couldn't quite put my finger on. The salad was to be eaten on top of shrimp crackers and was completely delicious.

The sixth and seventh courses, while good, weren't quite up to snuff comparatively. They consisted of grilled/smoked beef topped with sesame seeds that tasted overwhelmingly smoky and a sticky rice stir fry with lotus nut and diced carrot, shallot and onion. The latter was fine, if unmemorable.

Our last course arrived looking like a cross between a lollipop and a tomato plant (okay, to be honest, I would never have guessed "tomato plant" if the waitress hadn't described it as such). It was, in fact, a green been cake dipped in gelatin that was tasty and, yet again, unusual.

Did I eat again the rest of the day? I did not. But I did have a satisfied belly to last me through another bus ride the following day to Hoi An.

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