What Makes Huế Food Different

Many people ask me what makes Huế cuisine different from the food in other areas of Vietnam whenever I tell them I love Huế food. Well, it isn’t easy to give them a correct answer, is it? However, in my opinion, apart from its elegant presentation and fresh ingredients, Huế food is amplified by the addition of ‘ruốc’ and ‘ớt’ (red hot chili – either fresh or dry powder). Those two seasonings are like the ‘soul’ of Huế culinary style.

‘Ruốc’ is a kind of fermented tiny shrimp paste. It’s salty and very smelly. It can be found in ‘canh’ (soups) or ‘bún bò Huế’ (Huế beef noodles). I sometimes sneak into my mother’s kingdom, I mean her kitchen, to cook us my favorite vegetable ‘canh’. Of course, most of the time, my mother is happy to let me in but never does she forget to remind me to add some ‘ruốc’ in our ‘canh rau’ (vegetable soup) before leaving that kingdom to me for a while. I feel that unlike salt which is quite bitterly salty, ‘ruốc’ is salty but has a slight of succulence in it. It doesn’t seem like Huế people like adding sugar in their ‘canh’ so ‘ruốc’ obviously becomes one of the indispensable seasonings in Huế kitchens. Besides, you can turn ‘ruốc’ into a tasty dipping sauce for steamed vegetables by mixing it with water and simmering it in red-onion-fried oil. In the old hungry days when my mother and I found it hard to make two ends meet, my mother would make this dipping sauce from ‘ruốc’ to eat with steamed wild vegetables she would pick in the fields or on the riverbanks. ‘Ruốc’ can be simply prepared by adding in chopped red chilli and garlic with lime juice and a pinch of sugar. This thick dipping sauce can go well with fresh vegetables such as cucumber, vả (a kind of fig), and some other kinds of leaves found in Huế gardens. For those continually rainy days in Huế when we ran out of food except for rice and my mother didn’t have much money left to shop for us some meat or vegetables, we would mix a spoonful of ruốc with ground red chilli (sometimes we dropped in some hot oil) and eat with hot steamed rice. It still tasted heavenly good on those days, I can assure you.

And a dish won’t be considered Huế food unless it’s so spicy that it can burn your mouth. It’s not difficult to run into a diner completely enjoying her spicy food while its heat makes chains of sweat running on her face and her lips burning red. If you have ever had bún bò (beef noodles) in Huế, you will see a big steamy caldron filled with the stock which is covered with a thin layer of red-chili-fried oil. And you might also notice that on your table there are a little bowl of fish sauce with chopped red chili and another bowl of fried red chili paste waiting to be added in your ‘bún bò’. When I was a little girl, I always complained with tears in my eyes that our ‘canh’ – my favorite was too spicy and my mother’s forever and careless response was (and still is) that she only added a pinch of red hot chili powder in to make it look good and tasty. Of course, I didn’t believe her as the food was far beyond spicy. I’ve been growing with her spicy food and I don’t only get used to it but I think I have also been head over heels in love with it without knowing since when.

Now that you already know about the ‘soul’ of Huế food, you might wonder which Huế specialties have both of those mentioned seasonings that you should try when you have a chance to visit Huế. I’d happily recommend ‘bún bò’ and/or ‘cơm hến’ (clam rice).

Names of the dishes in the short video clip above:
- Ớt dầm nước mắm (Red hot chili in fish sauce)
- Tương ớt & Ruốc (Fried chili paste and Fermented tiny shrimp paste)
- Cơm hến (Clam rice)
- Bún bò (Huế beef noodles)
- Bánh canh (A kind of noodles)
- Ốc xào (Stir-fried snails)
- Cháo lòng (Porridge with pigs’ or cows’ intestines)

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Wrestling at Sình Village’s Temple

Sình Village’s Wrestling Festival (in Thừa Thiên Huế Province, Việt Nam) takes place in this village every 10th day of Tết – Vietnamese Lunar New Year. The wrestling festival used to be organized in the front yard of Sình Village’s temple but  since the last few years the official wrestling ring has been relocated at a public area near the entrance to Sình (aka Lại Ân) Village. The festival now includes two parts: ritual process at their temple together with some wrestling games in the front yard in the early morning as you can see in the video clip below; and festive wrestling at a public area which is not very far away from the temple. I hadn’t attended this locally well-known event until last Sunday, that was why I felt so excited. I preferred the wrestling atmosphere at the village’s temple to the festive wrestling as I love the setting of the games at that old temple by the intersection of Hương River and Bồ River; it gave me such a nostalgia.

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Family Ngành

Ngành with her two children at the door of the house

Traveling does not only bring me to new and beautiful landscapes or experience different and interesting cultures but it also leads me to people whom I meet only once but I decide come back to them and stay longer to share their tears and laughters.

Lê Thị Ngành is a Pako woman who lives with her family by Ta Rinh Spring and at the foot of A Tuc Mountain in A Lưới District, Thừa Thiên Huế Province, Việt Nam. I got to know her through her sister-in-law Sâm when she offered me a ride to Hồng Vân Commune which is about 10 km away from her home and then gave me another ride to the bus station. To thank her for the ride, I offered her a small sum of money but she refused to receive. I, at last, had to force her to receive it by putting the money in her pocket.

Although Nganh is very poor, she is a very generous, kind-hearted, lovely and strong-minded woman. Not only Ngành but the Pako people I have met in A Lưới are like that. Once they start to consider you their friend, they always try to offer you the best they have.

In 2010, Ngành’s husband died of blood cancer, leaving this 33-year-old woman with two children who are now 10 and 4 living in poverty. A shabby cottage where they live is unsafe for living in the typhoon seasons so when the Nari typhoon struck A Lưới, she and her children had to move to other people’s house for a shelter.

She does farming for a living but it does not really help her to make two ends meet. She plants cassava, vegetables, etc. She also works on their 1,000m2 of paddy field but every six months they only harvest about 3 bags of unhulled rice (about 150kg) which is not enough to feed her family. Therefore, Ngành has to buy rice and other kinds of food on credit. Their frequent meals are simply cooked rice, ground salt and red pepper and sometimes boiled rau khoai (sweet potato leaves). Sometimes she feels hopeless when going home exhausted from a hard working day when her 4-year-old son cries for fish or candy.

Beside farming, she also works as a porter for a living as well. She earns about 100,000VND/day. However, she can only be hired about 2 days/month. The rest of the time she has to work on her paddy field and in her garden. As she has to work far away from home, her sister lent her 3 million VND to buy a used scooter which is not in a very good condition. Her problem is that she doesn’t always have enough money to buy gas and the scooter does not work properly all the time.

Mrs. Ngành does not only have a huge workload on her back but also a tumor. Doctors advised her to go to Huế Central Hospital (about 70 km away from her village) to have it operated. She hesitates as all these questions haunt her: How to have enough money for the operation, transportation and accommodation in Huế City? Who is taking care of her children and farming when she’s away? She explained that when she got seriously sick and bedridden, she was unable to take care of her children so her neighbors brought them rice and vegetables. She explained that when she got seriously sick, she was unable to take care of her children so her neighbors brought them rice and vegetables. When she was bedridden, Nga didn’t go to school but stay at home with her. When she was deep in pain and misery, she intended to kill herself and the two little ones to release themselves from suffering. She asked her daughter Nga: “Do you wish to continue this life or die? Her little girl said “I want to live.” All she could do was to burst into tears. Ngành’s only fear is that if she dies of that tumor, no one took care of her children. I do believe that her health condition is not that serious.

When I picture her daughter Nga in my mind, it’s a quite shy but very lovely and caring little girl. She is tall and thin and tanned. She speaks Pako – her mother language but her Vietnamese is not very fluently yet.

One time her mother allowed her to overnight at my hostel when I discovered that she wore the casual clothes which looked like her school uniform to bed. When I asked her why she didn’t wear sleeping clothes, she said that she didn’t have any. Sương – my little Pako friend told me that sometimes Nga brought home the clothes that people threw away on the street to wear. Besides, since they don’t have bathroom and hygiene toilet at home, Nga found everything in my hostel’s bathroom was brand new to her. It’s very common that many local people in A Lưới make a hole in their garden a toilet.

To share her mother’s workload, she always does housework after school such as: cooking, washing dishes, cleaning the house, fetching the water for use, washing clothes, going to mountains to looking for firewood, harvesting crops, etc.

Ngành’s son Ngữ used to be a kindergartener but now he has to follow his mother while she works on the field as she cannot afford his school fee which is about 400,000VND/month. He does not normally have enough fish and meat for his meals so when I brought them some beef, tofu, eggs and milk, he was really happy. He doesn’t really speak Vietnamese but he was so excited with the food I bought them that he said with a big smile at lunch: “good eating!” in Vietnamese, which made us laugh heartily. I guess he copied me as I often praise my Pako friends’ cooking or ask my little Pako friends if the food is good.

With the support of a kind-hearted friend of mine, Nga now has a new bicycle to go to school and Ngành has a simple mobile phone to be in touch with her relatives and search for help when she is an urgent situation. They are just small gifts but I can feel that they’re very moved and appreciated.

Their journey of life has been a challenging one and it still goes on. They will still struggle to make two ends meet so it’ll be great if we can give them a helping hand. Let’s contribute our part in supporting Ngành’s family so that they can soon stand on their own feet.

For more information on the family, please contact me (Hương Lan) at lanhue054[at]gmail.com or check A Helping Hand‘s Facebook Page at www.facebook.com/ahelpinghandhue for the previous case that my friends and I have worked on.

Please find a video clip of my short talk with Nganh and Nga; and more photos of the family at: http://butchihue.wordpress.com/2013/10/20/family-nganh/.

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Supporting Plan:

- To fund Nganh’s tumor operation (DONE)
- To help her to start a small breeding farm (DONE)
- To sponsor her children’s education for 1 year (DONE)

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Thank you for your love and contribution, we have completed the supporting plan for Family Ngành. Below is a video clip of Family Ngành telling about their positive changes.

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