I sat in a proper chair to eat the other day. Usually my bum's a foot off the ground on a plastic stool, my elbows between my knees, chopsticks clicking in one hand, bowl in the other - in the street level squat position. I've adapted well to that. I'm ergonomically flexible. Big chair, little stool...whatever...what are we eating!
That day, in the big chair establishment, it was small food.
Of the Hue persuasion.
Hue is one of the old capitals of Vietnam, located on the central coast, famous for its unique cuisine. Hue history has it that one of the kings, Tu Duc, who reigned in the 19th century, was a fussy bastard who summoned chefs from all over the country to create an imperial cuisine where no dish was to be served twice in a year. As fussy as the monarch was, however, I suspect the cooks might have eventually got the upper hand. It seems that much of this lofty nosh was dollied up in various guises - fancy dress costumes really - dragons, peacocks and turtles, elaborate garnishes carved out of vegies- to amuse the king. Surely, though, it was the chefs, peering through those swinging doors to the kitchen, who were having a right royal laugh at the king and his court, gasping and whooping at cucumber ears on pate elephants!
This royal toy food is not on the menu at the Song Huong (Perfume River) restaurant. It's the traditional cuisine, cooked today by the women of Hue, which lands on the table. Discs of banh beo are camouflaged on tiny white ramekins, abstract sculptures of prawn dust, pork crackling and spring onion starkly flung on top. Bite size parcels of banh loc, steamed kudzu flour embedded with a baby shrimp and a bit of pork, are tricky to unwrap with the chopsticks.
Thus, on my big chair, I find myself doing the fiddle with miniature food that doesn't even touch the sides. To be completely honest, without the dipping sauces, these flour-based tidbits are supreme-o-blando, the banh loc so sticky I reckon it could put blutack out of business! But I'm being unfair! This lot is easy on the eye, exotic, historic just unfortunately microscopic. I'm hungry and I want the menu for big people!
From this smeared laminated pink document, a feast befitting my throne is procured. Mustard leaves, in which we wrap tender beef, slivers of ginger, chili and lemongrass along with cucumber, pineapple and young banana, are dipped in wasabi and soy. Extraordinarily punchy sinus busters they turn out to be! A double claypot order, one beef, one pork arrives on the same tray as the ricocarbo and the standard lunchtime leafy green of water spinach and garlic. A sour fish broth coloured bright with okra, pineapple, tomato and spring onion follows.
So, it is with a swish of the menu that we depart the finicky courtliness of Hue and land smack bang in the heartland of Vietnam, soon sufficiently sated.
All of the abovementioned plus two bottles of fizz - 100,000VND (USD$6.30, AUD$8.70)
Song Huong Restaurant
Nguyen Huu Huan St
Old Quarter Hanoi