Along with exploring new cultures, one of the great joys of travel is the discovery of new cuisines. Those unfamiliar with Vietnamese food are in for a treat, as the national cuisine is flavorsome, colorful and extremely healthy.
Northern Vietnam has long been influenced by its proximity to China. As the only part of the country that experiences four seasons, many dishes are only available on a seasonal basis. Overall, the food tends to be milder and lighter than that found in the rest of Vietnam.
Southern Vietnamese cuisine is the most varied. Rich in vegetables, rice and seafood, it has incorporated French, Cambodian and Thai influences into a style that is distinctively its own. It is generally more heavily seasoned, tropical and spicier yet sweeter than northern food.
The pundits claim that central Vietnamese cuisine is the most culturally authentic food in the country. Heavily influenced by the imperial court cuisine of Hue, the food is generally spicy and well-seasoned.
If you ever visit Vietnam’s former capital of Hue, in Central Vietnam, be sure to enjoy Hue royal cuisine, which is famous for its subtle flavors, nutrition, and beautiful presentation.
Considered a unique and important part of Vietnamese culinary culture, Hue royal cuisine features dishes prepared under the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945) for members of the royal family, and for imperial celebrations and ceremonies.
According to Ms Ton Nu Ha, a descendant of the family who for many generations were chefs at the imperial palace, most of the ingredients used in royal cuisine are the same as in regular dishes, but the main difference is the method of cooking, artistic decoration and the manner in which they are served.
Every meal of the Emperors included some 35 to 50 dishes and some had to feature “bát trân”, the eight most highly prized dishes in the royal palace, including peacock, bird, rhinoceros skin, bear paw, deer tendon, orangutan lip, elephant leg and swallow’s nest.
Today out of the 8 dishes most favored by the Emperors, only the bird’s nests can still easily be found and used, with permission. Of the 7 remaining dishes, some species have become extinct or fall into the category of rare animals which have to be protected.
Nowadays, we can savor 8 alternative dishes using premium ingredients which would be fit for an emperor. Such contemporary haute cuisine includes salangane bird’s nest (yen sao), shark fin, fish balls, sea cucumber, foie gras, lobster, oysters, and abalone which are very abundant in Nha Trang Bay.
Bird’s nests are harvested year round using a bamboo pole, a traditional method used for hundreds of years. There are some 40 islands and 136 caves in Nha Trang Bay which the salangane calls home and there are several varieties of yen sao which are processed and exported to many countries around the world.
In Nha Trang you can find several varieties of bottled yen sao drinks and healthy dishes in restaurants or on Emperor Cruises, such as yen sao soup, which is usually cooked with chicken, crab or sea cucumber, and che yen (yen sao sweet soup) for dessert, cooked with lotus seeds, fruit, sugar and fresh milk.
In the royal household each chef prepared just one dish. Royal parties were divided into different types, such as the big party with a menu of 161 dishes, the breakfast party with 12 dishes, and the vegetarian party, for making offerings to the ancestors in the pagoda, with 25 dishes.
Hue researcher Nguyen Dac Xuan explained the diet of the Nguyen Dynasty Emperors in his book “Lễ Tết ăn chơi trong cung Nguyễn” (Dining and festivities in the Nguyen Dynasty’s Royal Palace), explaining that the rice cooked for the Emperor was a type of aromatic rice grown in the fields of An Cuu village (to the south of Hue).
The rice was carefully selected then cooked in a special pot made only from clay found in Phuoc Tich village in Hue’s Phuong Dien District. Prior to cooking, the clay pots were boiled in fresh tea. Each pot was used just once then destroyed afterwards. The water to cook the rice or to make tea for the Emperors was taken from Ham Long well at Bao Quoc Pagoda (one of Hue’s many ancient pagodas).
Sometimes the water was also taken from Tuy Van Pagoda in Phu Loc district, about 50km from the centre of Hue, or even from the source of the Huong (Perfume) River.
Bowls and plates in the royal palace were made from ceramic and decorated with images of five-clawed dragons (different from the images of five-clawed dragons used by mandarins and civilians). However, under the dynasty of Emperor Dong Khanh, the imperial palace added glass tableware from Europe and under Emperors Khai Dinh and Bao Dai, tableware such as bowls, plates, knives and forks were also used to serve meals in a Western style.
Chopsticks and toothpicks for the emperors were made from bamboo by skilled craftsmen. Sometimes the emperors also used chopsticks made from “kim giao” wood, found on Cat Ba Island (near Ha Long Bay), Cuc Phuong and Bach Ma forests, to guard against poisoning, because “kim giao” wood is white in color but turns black when coming into contact with any substance. Like the clay pots, each chopstick was used just once.
The methods to cook royal dishes were passed down orally from royal chefs to their descendants. However, in the early 20th century, Ms Truong Dang Thi Bich, the daughter-in-law of a mandarin and poet under the Nguyen Dynasty, wrote the cookbook, “Thu Pho Bach Thien”, to teach her daughter how to cook 100 Hue dishes, including royal cuisine and popular dishes. What is particularly special about the cookbook is that the recipes are written in four-sentence poetry, which makes them easy to remember.
Ms Ton Nu Ha is well known as a famous chef and artisan who preserves the spirit of Hue royal cuisine. She has travelled to many countries in the world to present not only the art of Hue royal cuisine but also popular Hue dishes. At her Tinh Gia Vien restaurant in Hue (7/28 Le Thanh Ton Street) you can try typical Hue specialties, join a cookery class or learn how to carve fruit and vegetables into works of art.
In Nha Trang, travelers can enjoy imperial cruising inspired by the lavish lifestyle of the Emperor Bao Dai. Emperor Cruises in Nha Trang and Halong Bay offer daily cruising options where royal salangane bird’s nest soup and other specialties fit for an emperor are served. An imperial banquet is made more memorable as guests wear fine royal clothes as the glamour of a royal dining experience is recreated.
Emperor Cruises (www.emperorcruises.com) has crafted a culinary treat for the most discerning of palettes to ensure that our guests’ dining experience exceeds their expectations at the Can Chanh Royal Restaurant. The cuisine is always freshly prepared, using the best local ingredients, with an emphasis on seafood.
Each overnight trip includes a brunch breakfast, lunch and dinner. With every meal on board, guests are treated to a rich selection of complimentary local beers, spirits, and distinctive wines chosen by our acclaimed sommeliers. Barbecues and private dinners on the beach are available upon request