Savour the flavour

Known for its history, another highlight of a trip to Hue is the chance to taste its unique savoury cakes.

By Le Diem on August 19,2018 10:18 AM

Savour the flavour

Photos: Victisimo, Dustineats, Thuy Kenny

Popular restaurants  serving  Hue cakes:

+ Ba Do, 8 Nguyen Binh Khiem, Hue

+ Hanh, 11 Pho Duc Chinh, Hue

+ Lac Thien, 6 Dinh Tien Hoang, Hue

+ Hong Mai, 78 Dinh Tien Hoang, Hue

Ancient and poetic have long been used to describe Hue, Vietnam’s former imperial capital. But Hue is also delicious. Thanks to the dynasties that once ruled from the city, many dishes became local specialities after being served to emperors and the royal family. Among them, its savoury cakes (bánh) have won the hearts of many visitors for both their attractive look and unique flavour.

Some French friends of mine visited Hue for the first time earlier this year and after returning to Hanoi enthusiastically told me that they will go back many more times. Not because of the beautiful sightseeing but simply because they missed its cakes, especially bánh bèo.

Bánh bèo

Bánh bèo resembles a water fern (bèo), with a round and thin shape. Water ferns grow in most lakes and ponds in the city and were often depicted in the landscape paintings of local artists in the olden days.

Savour the flavour

Having artistic souls, cooks in Hue also shaped the cake like an artwork. They also brainstormed on how to serve it in a way that adds a more artistic feel. Different from other rice cakes rolled in leaves in Hue in particular and in Vietnam in general, each bánh bèo is cooked and served in a small bowl that fits its shape, which gives the cake another name - bánh bèo chén, in which ‘chén’ means ‘bowl’.

Small like a water fern, a set of ten bowls of white cakes with an orange top is served to fill an empty stomach. Using a spoon to take the cake out of the bowl, you can enjoy the soft but still slightly chewy taste of the steamed rice flour from the first bite. Interestingly, the topping of dried shrimp and fried pork skin provide a strong crispy taste mixed with a little fish sauce and fresh herbal vegetables and is in healthy harmony, according to my French friend Sara.

Bánh nậm

Savour the flavour

With the same ingredients, bánh nậm (steamed rice cake) is cooked in a different way and so has a different appearance. It is known to have originated among poor farming families in days long gone, according to the owner of Ba Do Restaurant, one of the most well-known in Hue for specialty dishes.

When there was not much food at home, just a bit of rice and some tiny shrimp caught in the fields but too few in number for a meal, housewives pounded the rice into flour and the shrimps to smithereens before rolling them in banana leaves. The steamed-leaf cakes and their sweet smell quickly found favour, from the elderly to young kids, for their delicious taste. ‘I still remember when I was small and eager for my turn when my grandmother would take the cake out of the leaf for the five of us,’ the owner of Ba Do Restaurant said. ‘She was really sweet, like the cake melting in my mouth.’ As an adult she took the cooking secrets of her grandmother and opened the restaurant. Recipes were originally exchanged with neighbours in the same financial circumstances and gradually reached richer families.

Bánh bột lọc

Savour the flavour

Also with shrimp and banana leaves for steaming, but with tapioca instead of rice flour, bánh bột lọc (steamed tapioca cake) is another cake experience not to be missed in Hue. The tapioca gives a transparent cover to the cake, with a unique chewy taste, before your tongue touches the stuffing of whole shrimp.

As soon as the shrimp hits your tongue you’ll feel its strong deep flavour, opposite to the mild taste of the covering, thanks to the shrimp being stewed before being put into the tapioca flour. The owner of Ba Do Restaurant said that the process of stewing the shrimp is the most sophisticated step, as it requires the right amount of spices, time and heat.

Compared to bánh bột lọc found in the north and the south, the Hue version is more delicious and unique, though it doesn’t have the meat stuffing and mushrooms that are common elsewhere. But bánh bột lọc from Hue is indeed the original.

Bánh khoái and bánh xèo

Savour the flavour

Another cake made from rice flour that is also a Hue delicacy is bánh khoái. There are a few tales of its origin. It’s said the cake was cooked on a dampish wooden fire in the old days, as it rains a lot in Hue, which creates a lot of smoke. It was therefore called khói (smoky) in the beginning. Over time, though, others mistakenly called it bánh khoái. Another story is that it was the favourite food of many people and so took the name khoái (favourite). Others believe that because it brings satisfaction to those who eat it, it was called khoái (satisfied).

Those who have never seen bánh khoái before can mistake it for bánh xèo (Vietnamese pancakes); popular around the country and quite similar in appearance and ingredients. Also featuring shrimp, beef and bean sprouts, bánh khoái is smaller in size and its cover is thicker and crispier. Making the cover requires good quality rice flour, which is ground smooth. After mixing it with water, it is put into a mould over a medium flame.

Another thing that adds to the different taste of bánh khoái compared to bánh xèo is the sauce. While bánh xèo uses fish sauce, bánh khoái goes with a sophisticated sauce that combines ground pork, liver, peanuts, and sesame seeds mixed with soya sauce and cooked together.

Everything can be tasted in one bite, from the crispy cover to the sweet taste of the meat and shrimp and sauce, giving diners a pleasurable meal.

Given their creativity and sophisticated way of cooking, Hue people create multi-looking, multi-smelling, and multi-tasting dishes from simple ingredients, according to Ms Ho Thi Hoang Anh, a cuisine artist in Hue. That’s why these dishes, including cakes, were offered to the royal palace, despite originating from poor families, and eventually found favour around the country. Visitors to Hue can easily find them at many places around town.

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