In a gust of fortune I was picked up by two kind Vietnamese women, Ha and Thu Phuong, whom I know through like, five degrees of separation. They met me for tea, tea turned into lunch. A short ride to the French Quarter and I was bathing in sweet fish sauces infused with chili. It was a lunch of cuisine a la Huế, the ancient capital city in central Vietnam known for its copious World Heritage sites.
Central Vietnam’s royal and prestigious history affords its cuisine the same distinctions. It was a meal of dozens of small plates and involved methods of preparation. Banana leaves needed tender unwrapping, cakes of steamed rice patties needed to be rolled, every plate was to have a splash of a different sauce; the minced beef patties on lemongrass skewers had to be assembled by hand with herbs, mango, cucumber, and vermicelli, all rolled into sticky rice paper, which was to be dipped in a light peanut sauce. Indeed, there was something more to this meal than most. It was fun.
Bánh bèo: tiny steamed rice patties topped with scallions, fried somethings, and crispy bread. Pour a little sugary fish sauce, and it’s an unbelievably good mix of texture and flavor.
Bánh nậm: another type of steamed rice cake infused with green onion, shrimp and/or pork. The technique here is to pour some fish sauce, slowly try to peel it off the leaf, then roll it into a tube.
Bánh ram ít: a sticky rice dumpling filled with pork and shrimp on top of a crispy rice cracker. The stickiness cannot be overemphasized; it feels like having very delicious glue in your mouth. I appreciated the crunchy cracker, which served as kind of a life boat to hold on to while chewing.
Nem lụi: Minced beef is wrapped around a piece of lemongrass and grilled. Then begins the painstaking – but very much rewarding – process of assembling the rice paper roll. I will definitely be doing this for future summer barbecues.
So after five involved dishes, I was prepared to roll out of the restaurant. But Ha insisted that I try Bún bò Huế, the defining soup of the region. Unlike pho in Hanoi, the broth is really complicated; largely infused with lemongrass, it has different sweet, sour, and salty components. It’s also known for its wide array of meats and proteins: oxtail, pig knuckles, beef shank, congealed pig’s blood, and random types of cartilage. Ha said I needed the “complete experience”, and I agreed.
I took a motorbike taxi home. As I strapped on my helmet and jumped onto the back of the bike, I swear to god, acceleration was slower than usual.∗