Arm Chair Travel – Huế

Dishes fit for a Emperor

After the formality of a cup of tea we set to work with Madame Hà, her daughter and six assistants. Our job was to create dishes for an Imperial meal for lunch time guests at Tịnh Gia Viên without harming the restaurants reputation!

Fortunately the assistants had already done the elaborate carving that included hollowing out a pineapple to create a lantern, turning pineapples into peacocks, tomatoes into swans and carrots into flowers. Our job was to cook paper-thin duck egg omelettes*, wrap the various force meats we had made in the omelettes, won ton pockets, spring roll wrappers and grape leaves. Deep fry them without burning ourselves and cut various shapes with razor sharp knives without drawing blood.

Again with this particularly arrangement it is not possible to caption the various photos but a left click will take you to a slideshow for a closer look.

Of course you couldn’t serve Emperor Tự Đức plain old springs rolls – they had to be cut into bite size pieces and arranged on the back of a peacock. Fortunately Madame Hà’s assistants provided the dazzle and we the sizzle.

The same applied to the Lantern – beggar’s purses of vegetables, won tons, stuffed grape leaves and French cheeses (!) required artful arrangement before the candle could be lit.

The Dance of the Phoenix – okay that was a bit of work. Omelettes were sliced to form a necklace of feathers on a bed of noddles, pigeon eggs were nestled around the white radish head, fried rolled omelettes stuffed with pork, mushrooms, red pepper and asparagus were cut into pinwheels, and then artfully arranged. Anyone for a dance?

Well that was three down and only forty-seven more to complete the menu for Emperor Tự Đức’s evening meal. And all it took was one master chef, six assistants and two bumbling tourists.

The two Chefs (??) with Madame Hà and their (???) creations.

*Did I mention that Madame Hà said mine were the thinnest and most perfect she’d ever seen in all her years of cooking? Just saying!

The word for September 29th is:
Phoenix /ˈfēniks/: [noun]
A unique bird in classical mythology that lived for five or six centuries in the Arabian desert, after this time burning itself on a funeral pyre and rising from the ashes with renewed youth to live through another cycle.
Old French fenix, via Latin from Greek phoinix ‘Phoenician, reddish purple, or phoenix’. The relationship between the Greek senses is obscure: it could not be ‘the Phoenician bird’ because the legend centres on the temple at Heliopolis in Egypt, where the phoenix is said to have burnt itself on the altar. Perhaps the basic sense is ‘purple’, symbolic of fire and possibly the primary sense of Phoenicia as the purple land (or land of the sunrise).
Isn’t it also the name of a city in the Southwestern US where old people go to burn in the sun?

Armchair Travel – Huế

Madame Hà’s Garden of Tranquility

In October 2006 I started this blog (I had a previous one when I worked for the Warsaw Business Journal – the WBJ, at 10 zloty the cheapest BJ in Warsaw*) in October of 2016 with the aim of recording our trip to Vietnam. It was coming up to my 60th birthday and I wanted to celebrate in someplace a little different. We had been to Cambodia and Thailand the year before and I loved South East Asia. And having grown up in the 70s during the American War (known here as the Vietnam War) I had seen endless reports on the country. None of those reports prepared me for the fascinating three weeks we spent visiting the country from the Mekong Delta in the south to the Hoang Lien Son mountains at the Chinese border. Back in 2006 Vietnam was still off the normal tourist map and I understand that now it has become very popular. It is one place I would love to visit again – for now I’ll just revisit it from the comfort of my armchair.

Cruising Halong Bay on December 10th 2006.

I wish I could remember the name of the tour company I booked with as their service was nothing short of miraculous. Accommodations were deluxe, travel first class, and nothing was ever a problem for our guides. We had indicated that cooking would be one of our chief interests and we were booked in to several cooking schools turning our travels. All of them were great fun and a good introduction to the varied regional cuisines of the country. But none were as intriguing as Madame Hà’s Garden of Tranquility in the last Imperial capital of Vietnam: Huế.

Looking towards Thế Miếu Temple in the Imperial City in Huế – built in 1833-23 by the Emperor Minh Mạng for the purpose of ancestor worship.

Madame Hà’s forte is the elaborate cuisine favoured by Tự Đức, the fourth emperor (1847-1883) of the Nguyễn dynasty of Vietnam. To classify Tự Đức as a gourmand would be no exaggeration – it is said that he demanded that his daily morning tea be brewed using only the dew collected overnight from lily pads on the ponds of his palace. His feasts included 50 dishes prepared by 50 cooks with the finest ingredients the country could provide. It was an elaborate cuisine that demanded novelty and presentation of the highest order. Perhaps it is churlish to note that Tự Đức insisted on these elaborate feasts during times of famine and pestilence or that his cooks stole what they wanted from vendors in the local markets.

The much lauded and awarded Madame Tôn Nữ Thị Hà – the leading authority on the cuisine of the Imperial Court at Huế.

Madame Tôn Nữ Thị Hà, who I understand is still going strong at 77, is regarded as Vietnam’s leading authority in the art of the Imperial cuisine of Huế. She also claims descent from the Nguyễn dynasty and has been given the title of “National Treasure”. Set in a traditional landscaped garden and surrounded by over 400 bonzais – a passion of Monsieur Hà we were told – Tịnh Gia Viên is a restaurant/cooking school housed in an old French villa. It is a mere 500 metres away from the grounds of the Citadel and Imperial enclave. Yes it is “touristy” but also a great deal of fun. We were the only two people in the class that day and Madame Hà and her daughter were genial and easy-going. And I’m sure that Madame tells everyone that their duck egg omelettes are the thinnest and most perfect she’s seen in all her years of cooking!

And what was on the menu – oh nothing fancey. Just three of the fifty dishes you needed to please Emperor Tự Đức.

A few of the ingredients that would go into creating (left to right) a peacock bearing spring rolls, the elaborate Dance of the Phoenix, and a pineapple lantern studded with won ton and beef wrapped in grape leaves.

In the next few days I’ll be putting together a few photos of some of the work that went into creating these elaborate dishes.

The word for September 24th is:
Imperial /imˈpirēəl/: [1. adjective 2. noun]
1.1 Relating to an empire.
1.2 Relating to or denoting the system of non-metric weights and measures (the ounce, pound, stone, inch, foot, yard, mile, acre, pint, gallon, etc.)
2. A small pointed beard growing below the lower lip (associated with Napoleon III of France).
From Middle English imperial, from Old French imperial, from Latin imperiālis (“of the empire or emperor, imperial”).

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