Royal Cuisine – Cultural Interview: The Hue To Go by KF Seetoh
There was a visit to another dimension of food glory, a ride out to visit Boi Tran Garden to meet Madame Boi Tran herself, a living legend of an artist and chef. The place, the green, manicured and curated garden and yards with French and local Hue touches plus the food, served like how the Royals once ate (well almost, except we were too noisy and gushed at her platters). My late buddy Anthony Bourdain visited and featured it before, but I had to take the mickey out of his very staid visit “Yes, hahahahaha, that’s how he was, you are on point”, said a very warm and endearing Madame Boi Tran recalling his visit. Bless you Tony, you paved the way here.
One of the highlights of our foodie trip to Hue, Vietnam – Royal Cuisine at Boi Tran Garden is, actually, one of my most memorable dining experiences ever. Boi Tran Garden in Thien An Hills is about 20 minutes by car, 8 km south of Hue city centre. The sprawling garden has a lotus pond, pavilions, and traditional houses nestled among lush leafy greenery and blooming flowers. It has an air of serenity punctuated occasionally by bird calls. It’s an idyllic, calming retreat. Madame Boi Tran who is an internationally renowned artist built this garden over 20 years ago (in 1999) to paint and to house her gallery. Besides lacquer and acrylic, Madame Boi Tran is also an accomplished sculptor, an art she especially likes because it allows her to express in 3 dimensions. One of the traditional buildings in Boi Tran Garden is an altar house honoring Madame Boi Tran’s son. In 2002, he rescued 2 drowning swimmers off Santa Cruz, California but drowned while trying to save a third person. He was 22 and a University of California student then. Madame Boi Tran hosts her guests to her royal Hue cuisine here in this large, airy dining hall adorned with her beautiful paintings. Her much sought-after works are sold through auction houses such as Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Bonhams. Among the many dignitaries who graced Boi Tran Gardens and its halls was Anthony Bourdain who featured Madame Boi Tran and her royal cuisine in an episode of Parts Unknown. She is a descendant of Hue royalty and she has taken on the mission to preserve Hue royal cuisine by serving the dishes in Boi Tran Garden. At first, she hosted only family and friends, but later accepted public requests on popular demand. Now, the waiting list is 6 months long. Madame Boi Tran runs her estate and kitchen with some 50 staff, most with disadvantaged backgrounds whom she has undertaken to help.
Our starter – Chạo Tôm Nướng Mía – deep-fried minced prawn meat wrapped around a stem of sugar cane, the meat was removed from the sugar cane, folded into a large leaf together with cucumber, basil leaves, and other vegetables (many harvested from Boi Tran Garden itself). Add a bit of gently spicy-sweet peanut sauce. In the mouth, the fried shrimp tasted savoury sweet with an overlay of flavours and fragrances from the accompanying greens and fruits. It was a great start to more flavours of royal Hue to follow.
Next up is Gỏi Huế – in the bowl, a bouncy tangle of glass noodles and slivers of julienned banana blossom topped with a couple of shelled prawns, basil, and red chili pepper. The dish comes with a bowl of soup made by boiling small goby (cá bống) from the Perfume River and pineapple. The soup has a smooth, mild savoury sweet taste with a bit of citrusy note from the pineapple. It is emptied into the glass noodles, prawns, etc, and eaten together. It’s extremely delicious with nice layers of crunch and tenderness, savoury sweetness, and underlying pineapple taste. Exquisite dish, rarely seen elsewhere so I think it is worthwhile coming to Boi Tran Garden just for this. The goby fish used for the soup, looked limp with most of its flavours surrendered to the broth. I didn’t forget to taste the meat. This fish is commonly sold in markets and supermarkets in Hue. Anthony Bourdain says it better, in his captivating style.
Cá Sốt Chanh or fish dressed with lemon sauce, Madame Boi Tran used cobia fish for this dish. The fillet was lightly battered, fried in a shallow pan, and smothered in a thick gooey lime sauce. My makan kakis (dining buddies) enjoyed this dish for the sweetness of the fish meat complemented by the gentle smooth, bright-tasting mild citrusy flavour in the lime sauce. I found the fish meat a little too soft and there was an underlying earthiness which is an acquired taste. Still, I enjoyed this dish because its finely tuned lime sauce made the fish taste good.
Xáo Bò Bánh Ướt – beef soup with rice rolls, the slices of beef were gorgeously tenderly juicy beefy savoury. The soup was rather robustly beefy savoury with mild spice and herby notes. I thoroughly enjoyed the beef soup and beef with the soft rice rolls which seemed to unfurl itself when I dropped it into the soup. The soup and all its savoury flavours clung to the sheet of rice roll. In the mouth, it was a slurpy blend of beefy savoury flavours complemented by rice sweetness – gorgeous.
Xà lách Rau, a vegetable salad dressed with crushed peanut and fish sauce, reminds me of Thai salads but with a milder, smoother tasting dressing that allows the flavours of the slivers of carrot, raw mango, mint, sawtooth herb (culantro), banana blossom, etc to shine through the savoury fish sauce.
Dessert was Longan stuffed with Lotus Seed. Longan and lotus seed pairs well together providing layered sweetness and complementary soft textures. Lotus seeds feature frequently in Hue dishes as lotus is abundant around the Perfume River that runs placidly through the Imperial City.
Our visit and lunch at Boi Tran Garden were one of the defining moments of our foodie trip to Hue. Food, ambience, hospitality, everything was impeccable. We enjoyed every moment and every bite. Thank you Madame Boi Tran for having us.
Excerpted from The Hue to Go, Royal Cuisine at Boi Tran Garden