Friday, March 30, 2012, 00:00

Eat like royalty

By Rossie Indira

Eat like royalty

Emperor Gia Long, the first ruler of the Nguyen dynasty, made Hue the national capital of a united Vietnam in 1802, a position that it held until 1945. The city was chosen because it was situated in the geographical center of the country and had easy access to the sea.

The emperor constructed a new capital that was much larger than its predecessor, Dong Trang, to demonstrate his supremacy over both his subjects and his enemies.

Ancient Hue had four citadels or defended enclosures, including the Imperial City for royal palaces and shrines, and the Forbidden Purple City for the royal residences.

The Imperial City and the Forbidden Purple City became known as the Inner City, built to distance royalties from the people. Commoners were not allowed to emulate the royalties clothes, music, dances as well as food.

Hues gourmet heritage dates back to 1848, during the reign of the flamboyant emperor Tu Duc (1848-1883). The chefs who served the imperial court then were Vietnams finest. They created new dishes and the most distinctive feature of their food was the decorative presentation.

That is the mantra of master chef Ton Nu Thi Ha (aka Madam Ha), the owner of a family-run restaurant called Tinh Gia Vien, located in a quiet lane east of the royal citadel. Ton Nu literally means family of the king.

My food is all about presentation, presentation, presentation! declares Madam Ha.

And presentation is what we get when we order the Imperial Meal at her beautiful two-story restaurant surrounded by a verdant garden.

All the traditional Hue dishes at Tinh Gia Vien are visual and gastronomic feasts and they come elegantly and colorfully presented, usually in the form of animals.

Madam Ha tells us that the names of the dishes prepared for the royal family in ancient times were meant to impress and amuse. Culinary traditions then demanded that meals be presented aesthetically, harmonizing food elements, decorations and colors to create a gastronomic work of art

Dance of the Phoenix, for example, is a plate of a giant cucumber bird, resting on a nest of noodles, with plumes made out of pate. Green Papaya with Lemon in the Form of a Dragon comes complete with menacing eyes and tongue crafted out of red pepper. The more subdued Elephant arrives with carrot ears, cucumber tusks, pate head and body, wrapped in rice paper crepe.

For inspiration, Madam Ha says she draws on her heritage as a descendant of the royal family, as well as on her culinary training.

Its not only the food at Tinh Gia Vien that is spectacular. The gardens surrounding it are resplendent with tropical flowers, delicate bonsai and lush trees. The first owner of the building before it became a restaurant was a princess, Madame Ha tells us.

Hence, guests have the privilege of enjoying their royal meals surrounded by more than 400 bonsai trees and almost 200 species of plants and flowers, including a 150-year-old mai plant and a 200-year-old longevity plant.

Madame Ha says she wants her guests to experience a slice of ancient royal life as a Nguyen courtier by indulging in an imperial dinner cooked and served by a direct descendant of the royal family in an enchanting setting.

It is amazing that they put so much effort into the presentation of the food, says Etty Sambodo, an Indonesian traveler at her first imperial dinner at Tinh Gia Vien.

I can pretend that I am one of the courtesans of the Nguyen dynasty when I see all this food on the table. And they even accommodated the fact that I am a Muslim so I dont eat pork. They served me totally halal (approved by Islamic law) imperial food!

Vietnamese rank the cuisine of Hue as the countrys most refined. There are two forms Hue traditional food and royal cuisine or the food of the imperial court. Hue food has always been based upon balancing tastes and ingredients with colors and designs according to geomantic principles.

I always want to experience Hues cuisines and compare them to our Hoi An specialties, says Tran Thi Thanh Thao, born in Hoi An, a city about 100 km away, and visiting. I read somewhere that out of 1,700 Vietnamese dishes, 1,400 originated from Hue. Its incredible, isnt it?

Thao advises that the best places to taste local food are the simple restaurants or hawker stalls patronized by the locals. Go to simple eateries where they charge inexpensive prices but have very rich tastes, she says.

Lets try bun bo Hue (beef noodle soup served with chili and shrimp paste) here, she exclaims before an eatery near the Perfume River. It is one of the citys most famous dishes.

She also recommends the banh khoai, a shrimp and bean sprout pancake served with peanut sauce, and the banh hot thit quay, roast pork in pastry.

Hue is also a major Buddhist center and so its vegetarian dishes are famed as well. However, unlike vegetarian dishes in the West, Hue chefs aim to replicate the taste of meat using vegetable ingredients. Some local favorites include grilled deer with lemongrass or shrimp cakes that are totally free of meat.

In Hue, commoners can now eat like royalty if they like. Depending on their budget, they will still get great food all around.