With such a rich history, Hue city claims several distinctive dishes — from small and delicate creations originally created to please the appetites of Nguyen feudal lords, emperors (and their hundreds of wives) — to lusty, fiery street-level soups and sausages with complex, explosive and satisfying flavors. Here are the dishes I saw, and ate again and again, on a recent visit to Hue.
Finely ground beef and pork, plus shredded pork skin and fat, garlic, sugar and fish sauce are formed into sausages around stalks of lemongrass, grilled over charcoal and set in front of diners. This is serve with half-moons of rice paper (for wrapping around the meat), to which you add sliced lettuce, cucumbers and trai va (a green fig unique to the region), lightly pickled strings of carrot and green papaya, cold rice vermicelli and a pile of herbs.
Then, it’s basically grip and dip: Hold the whole package securely and pull out the lemongrass skewer, then dip it into a chunky, mild-yet-complex hoisin-based sauce that includes both peanuts and peanut butter, fermented beans, sesame seeds, shrimp paste, garlic and shallots. Add chiles to taste. Many restaurants’ menus offer nem lui, along with a selection of banh, spring rolls and maybe a grilled meat and vermicelli dish. There is a particularly fresh and tasty version of nem lui available at Tai Phu restaurant (located at the corner of Dien Bien Phu and Nguyen Hue streets).