Hue Royal food dishes are the only royal dishes in Vietnam to be clearly recorded in old Vietnamese encyclopaedia and have strict rules regarding preparation. They are still preserved by royal descendants or descendants of royal chefs, although some elements of the modern-day versions may not be original.
Tet (Lunar New Year) was held in high regard by the Nguyen Dynasty emperors, who considered it the starting point of new opportunities for the Kingdom so it had to be joyfully celebrated, in addition to worshipping and presenting offerings to the ancestors and gods.
Just like dishes for ordinary people, dishes for the royal families were prepared long before Tet. Foods that could be stored over a long period of time were prepared in the traditional way, with some improvements being made by adding local touches popular in the old citadel of Hue. The emperors and the royal families had their own favourite dishes, which are explained in the encyclopaedia, together with offerings to the ancestors and gods.
In the encyclopaedia called Kham Dinh Dai Nam, Volume 237, by Quang Loc Tu 1 (Chapter 14), Page 270-271, regarding dishes for a party, it is written that Emperor Tu Duc issued a set of regulations in 1849 on offerings during the annual three-day Tet holiday.
There were clear instructions on where first-class food dishes were to be offered, where second-class food dishes were to be offered and where third-class food dishes were to offered, and how many trays of food were offered at each table, with 161 flavours being the maximum number for a tray of first-, second- and third-class food dishes.
The dishes called ngoc soan included smoked foods, cooked foods, fresh vegetables and shrimps and crabs, and were displayed on 30 dishes.
The dishes called qui, which were intended for the emperor or senior members of the royal families, included 50 flavours - chicken, duck, boiled pork, roast pork, wood ear mushrooms, enoki mushrooms, fins, eels, turtles and different kinds of cakes such as banh chung, banh day, banh que, banh te dieu, banh hoang tinh, banh dua, and banh gao nep trang.
Breakfast dishes included fried duck, fried pork, fried shrimps, boiled pork, and 12 flavours.
Dishes as offerings at pagodas like Giac Hoang Pagoda consisted of five trays of first-class dishes, 17 trays of second-class dishes, five trays of first-class vegetarian dishes, and 17 trays of second-class vegetarian dishes. At Dieu De Pagoda, dishes as offerings consisted of 13 first-class dishes and 45 second-class vegetarian dishes.
During the reign of Emperor Minh Mang (1791 -1841) the Hue Royal food dishes were well-organised with clear regulations. There were different kinds of dishes during the reign of each emperor, however, because of their different tastes and favourites.
During the reign of Emperor Dong Khanh, for example, the royal families began to use chopsticks made from a very beautiful light wood called podocarpus fleuryi hickel, while during the reign of Emperor Khai Dinh western spirits began to be drunk, and royal dishes began to have significant influences on the dishes of ordinary people, especially during the Tet holidays.
Only banh chung was chosen as an offering, yet many dishes, including different kinds of cakes and different kinds of meat loafs, were served to the emperors and royal families. Emperor Bao Dai’s favourite dishes included slices of boiled pork served with mung bean sprout pickles, shrimp paste, green bananas, star fruit, and cucumbers, as well as mustard green rolls and shrimp pickle rolls.
Most of the ingredients for the offerings to ancestors and gods during Tet and other offering rites recorded in the encyclopaedia were presented to the emperors by provinces around the country, and those ingredients were specialities of the best quality form the provinces and had to be presented to the emperor well before they were needed for events.
For instance, rice and fruit came from Thua Thien, fins and turtles from Gia Dinh (in then Saigon), mangoes from Phu Yen, limes from Binh Dinh or Quang Nam, lanzones from Quang Nam, sweet oranges from Thanh Hoa and Hai Duong, watermelons from Quang Binh, polygonatum kingianum, soybean paste and mulberry wine from Quang Binh, and coconuts from Vinh Long and Dinh Tuong (now Tien Giang) provinces.
In addition to the things presented to the emperor as offerings to the ancestors and gods, the ingredients presented to the emperor and the royal families during Tet were strictly compliant to certain rules. Black buffalo, goats and pigs were presented by residents from the three districts of Huong Tra, Quang Dien and Phu Van in Thua Thien province. The animals were taken good care of by residents and were presented to a team in charge of slaughtering them in the required way.
Wine as an offering was of great importance, so it had to be chosen from the best kind of rice and had to be clean, from the ingredients to the final product when sealed in pots, and a group of officers were responsible for everything. Medicinal wines like Emperor Minh Manh wine had to be processed with great care.
In general, royal cuisine ensured that the ingredients and food dishes were of the best quality and hygiene from the stage of growing to the stage of processing. All steps had to be strictly supervised and severe penalties, including beheading, were imposed if preparation was not done properly. The dishes also had to be tested for poison before they were presented to the emperors.