The best way to get to the heart of Huế’s tremendous food culture is to take to the streets. Vietnam’s former imperial capital fostered an elegant array of dishes that continue to be the pride of its people. As Huế people say, you can get Huế cuisine elsewhere in Vietnam, but it never tastes quite the same as it does here.
There’s something about the weather, the greenery and the history all around that makes eating in Huế a pleasure. Light and lovely steamed bites are even more exquisite when enjoyed in Hue’s poetic gardens and countryside. If you’re ready to go beyond bún bò Huế, then read on for a primer on Huế’s culinary backstory, plus seven irresistible local specialties to hunt down here.
The history of Hue cooking
The Nguyen lords, the feudal dynasty that first united the country and dominated much of southern Vietnam from the 16th to the 19th century, chose their capital wisely. On the banks of the evocative Song Huong (Perfume River), they constructed a citadel and a lavish wonderland of tombs, temples and palaces. Some say the other reason the Nguyen lords chose Huế is because it has the best produce in the country: seafood is tastier with exactly the right balance of salt in the water, fruit is sweeter, and herbs have smaller leaves and a sharper, more complex flavour than the rest of Vietnam.
True or not, with unfettered access to this enviable larder, the Nguyen lords told their chefs to get creative. And they did. It’s said that over half of all Vietnamese dishes originated in Huế. Emperor Tu Duc in particular is credited for Huế’s emergence as a culinary powerhouse. Tu Duc was a man of exquisite taste and a demanding diner. Legend says he required a different meal every day for a year — a tough ask for even the most innovative kitchen team.
His legacy, though, is some of the best food in Vietnam, ranging from the city’s imperial cuisine — a succession of dainty dishes served at lavish multi-course banquets — to creations that made it out of the royal court to achieve mass popularity with locals. The seven elegant Huế dishes below still bear the imprint of these storied origins.
Hope you’re not afraid of a little crunch. This pan-fried crepe is stuffed full with plump shrimp, quail egg, bean sprouts and pork belly. The batter gets its characteristic yellow colour by mixed turmeric powder with rice flour. Bánh khoái in Huế is always served with a fresh salad of figs, starfruit and cucumber to cut the grease, as well as a thick dipping sauce made from peanuts and pork liver.
These petite rice cakes are only the size of a silver dollar, but you’re guaranteed to want (at least) half a dozen once you taste them. Each bite is steamed in a small ceramic saucer, then topped with a sprinkle of dried shrimp, pork crackling, shallots, and scallion oil. A few drops of slightly sweetened fish sauce and you have the quintessential Huế snack. Don’t miss it.
One of Huế’s most tempting steamed dumplings, bánh nậm will win you over with its dainty texture and delicious taste. Each dumpling is made of a thin layer of rice flour paste, topped with fresh shrimp as well as shrimp flakes fried with garlic, scallions and onion. The cook deftly folds the dumplings into banana leaf parcels for steaming. Like bánh bèo, a few drops of fish sauce is all it takes to make each beautiful bite come alive in your mouth.
Bún thịt nướng
Something of a light Vietnamese-style salad, bún thịt nướng is an inspired order for lunch when visiting the former imperial capital. First, well-seasoned pork is grilled over flaming charcoal. The bowl is assembled with cold rice vermicelli noodles, fresh herbs, pickled papaya and carrot, thinly sliced cucumber coins, and a handful of fresh lettuce — the meat goes on last. Douse it all in light fish sauce, mix, and dig in.
Bánh ram ít
Huế is one of the few places where you can encounter this delightful dumpling. A fried sticky rice cake and soft, steamed rice cake are layered on each other into a small mound. The rice is the star of the show, but a few shreds of fresh and fried shrimp, shallots and crispy pork skin make the finishing touches.
Sometimes described as wet rice paper, bánh ướt is a soft, succulent sheet of fresh rice noodle. Huế cooks wrap it around a mix of aromatic herbs, crisp greens and grilled meat to make rolls. Get in there with your hands, and dip frequently into the spicy, garlic sauce on the side.
Bánh bột lọc
Texture is one thing Huế locals love to explore in their meals. Some travellers may find bánh bột lọc a curiously sticky morsel, but that’s part of the fun. Tear each translucent tapicoa dumpling from the banana leaf, and get a good look at the little piece pork and shrimp buried inside. It’s a mini-meal, Hue-style.