The centre

The centre

By
Andreas Pohl, Tracey Lister
Contains
10 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742701578
Photographer
Michael Fountoulakis

In hue

Two friends in Hue looked like their lives had taken very different paths. One was a smartly dressed young professional, the other with his shabby clothes and scruffy shoes did not seem to have done that well. These obvious differences, however, didn’t look like they mattered much. The two whiled away the afternoon in a little beer garden on the grassy banks of the Perfume River, lingering over a hotpot and bottles of local beer. They were still there when the small tourist boats came back from the emperors’ tombs upstream and dusk had turned the river into a steel-blue band separating the forbidden city with the Royal Palace from the old French quarter.

Hue’s old name, Thanh Hoa, means ‘peace’ or ‘harmony’, and the two unlikely friends personified just that, chewing the fat at a simple laminex table under one of the six distinct steel spans of the Trang Tien Bridge the French had built last century.

But Hue did not always live up to its original name. When the first emperor of the Nguyen dynasty took the reign in 1802, he moved the imperial court from Hanoi and made 'neutral' Hue the capital of the country. He also named the recently unified country Vietnam, leaving behnd its former name before Chinese occupation, Nam Viet. To add to the sym , the emperor took the name of Gia Long-a combination of the old names for Ho Chi Minh City (Gia Dinh) and Hanoi (Thang Long). For about one hundred and fifty years, the city was a hotbed of political intrigue until Vietnam's last emperor, Bao Dai, went into exile to France in 1945.

Meanwhile, on the southern side of the Hai Van mountain pass, Hue's rise iurned the once thriving port of Hoi An into a provincial backwater. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Hoi An was a busy entry point into Vietnam for Portuguese, Chinese and Japanese traders, but later lost out olitically to Hue and economically to Danang. In hindsight, however, this was Hoi An's luck, as the wars against the French and Americans largely bypassed the town. This preserved Hoi An's traditional merchant houses, pagodas, colourful Chinese assembly halls and temples, and the famous Japanese covered bridge. As a result, Hoi An, with its rich heritage, is now bustling with visitors from around the world.

In a reversal of fortune, Hue, which suffered greatly during the American War, now has the air of a sleepy country town. Not that Hue lacks attractions of its own-the Royal Palace with its magnificent main entrance, the Ngo Man Gate, has become the symbol of the town eager to capitalise on its royal past. In fact, it is used in the unofficial 'Made in Hue' brand adorning labels of virtually anything the town produces, from CD covers to beer bottles and rice-paper packets. Hue's other drawcard is the emperors' tombs along the Perfume River. The emperors carefully selected the sites themselves with a little help from the court geomancers. The tombs look rather more like summer palaces than your ordinary family plot, complete with lotus ponds, paved yards and frangipani trees.

The emperors' attention to detail did not only concern itself with the afterlife, but also with the very earthly delights of good food. They were fussy eaters and also easily bored, and it was up to the royal chefs to provide the culinary entertainment. Variety was the name of the game when it came to royal banquets, which consisted of a great number of small courses, each beautifully plated to be both pleasing to the palate and to the eye. To add to the degree of difficulty for the imperial kitchen brigade, no dish was supposed to be repeated within the course of the year.

In contrast, food in Hoi An is about simplicity. The town's most famous dish, cao lau, is a humble soup with a particular type of rice noodles that were introduced to the town by Japanese traders. Unfortunately, unlike the recipes in the following section, this is one dish that can only be enjoyed in Hoi An itself. Not because of its exotic ingredients, but because to be truly authentic, the noodles have to be made by the same family with water from one particular well only-just as it has been for the last century.

Lotus seeds

Maybe it is the contrast between the muddy ponds and the radiant pink colour of the flower sitting on stems straight as arrows, that made the lotus flower the Buddhist symbol of purity. So taken were the emperors by this plant, which grows plentifully in the moats of the imperial palace, that they demanded their tea be made only from the dew which settles on the leaves of the lotus flower overnight.

Lotus flowers are a powerful symbol, but they are also a versatile foodstuff. The Vietnamese use the seeds to add a nutty flavour and texture to savoury dishes, like stews and soups, or turn them into a sweet paste as a filling for pastries.

The lotus seeds from Hue are famous for being particularly sweet and tender. The beige-coloured fresh seeds, which have a creamy texture not unlike chestnuts, make an appearance in the markets during the harvest season in late April and May. The market sellers remove the bitter green shoot at the centre of the seed with a needle and often stringup the lotus seeds like pearls on a necklace. It is also possible to buy dried seeds, which need to be boiled or soaked overnight to soften themup before cooking.

Recipes in this Chapter

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