Com Hen soul of Hue street cuisine
Update: Feb 21, 2020
Pairing leftover rice from the previous night with baby mussels, Hue cuisine embodies the notion of zero waste.Pairing leftover rice from the previous night with baby mussels, Hue cuisine embodies the notion of zero waste.

A bowl of com hen costs from VND7,000-10,000 ($0.3-0.4) though please note a typical serving includes two to three bowls. Photo by VnExpress/Ngan Duong

Amongst the gastronomical specialties of ancient town Hue bun bo Hue (rice vermicelli and beef) undoubtedly stands out most. Overall, these dishes vary in flavor and garnishing from one region to another yet the authentic flavor of com hen adheres exclusively to the ancient capital.

Com hen is a rice dish with rural ingredients like baby mussels (hen) and fresh herbs combined through a sophisticated process. The mussels are boiled to create the broth adding sweetness and depth to the rice.

According to locals, the tastiest baby mussels are found in the Perfume River section of Con Village, Vi Da Ward. "Briefly boiled baby mussels are delivered to me at around 4.30 a.m. However, they still contain sand and dirt at this point and require a thorough wash before being seasoned and sautéed," said the owner of a local com hen eatery.

Another crucial ingredient is fresh herbs including mint leaves, fine banana blossom shavings, starfruit slices, and pennywort. Preparation commences at 8 p.m. the previous night. Correct timing prevents sogginess and preserves herbal flavoring. Prior to each serving, the chef spends 3-4 hours cutting, washing, and drying the herbs.

"With an eye for detail, I make the toppings from scratch instead of purchasing them pre-made. I like my peanuts roasted in oil so they exude an aromatic smell and aren’t bitter nor raw. Even the pork rinds I fry though it is an excruciating and time-consuming process," said the stall vendor.

This Hue specialty made such a striking impression that it was even featured in one of writer Hoang Phu Ngoc Tuong’s works. Originating in Hue, his words excellently capture the dish: "The memorable taste of this rice bowl lies in the scrumptious and fragrant pork floss and tear-jerking piquant condiments. Despite its spiciness, fans of the dish would request fresh chili on the side for a nice crunch. With vision blurred by the tears streaming down and beads of sweat dropping into the bowl, one continues to relish, at times mumbling out loud how tasty the dish is. Whenever far from home, this is the first thing that comes to mind: a deep desire to fly straight to Hue for this bowl full of magic!"

Each eatery slightly varies its choice of condiments, offering a distinctive taste. Locals have the habit of frequenting the same joint.

"My customers were all unable to find a replica of our dish elsewhere despite having traveled a lot. That's due to our pork floss and herbs being prepared in the right authentic way true to Hue," another vendor said.

Overtime, vermicelli versions of com hen have made an appearance. This is a common breakfast dish familiar to Hue locals. Whereas street vendors sell the dish from 7 a.m. until noon, restaurants near tourist attractions are open all day.

Hue in Thua Thien-Hue Province, central Vietnam is the seat of Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945), the country's last royal family. The ancient town, a popular heritage destination, is dense with many UNESCO-recognized heritages, including royal tombs, ancient palaces and pagodas. Hue attracts 4.8 million visitors last year, up 11 percent over 2018, 2.18 million of them foreigners.

Try out the specialty at these following addresses:

-Com Hen Hoa Dong – 64 Kiet 7 Ung Binh Street, Vy Da Ward, Hue.

-Quan Nho – 28 Pham Hong Thai Street, Vinh Ninh Ward, Hue.

-Com Hen Han Mac Tu – 17 Han Mac Tu Street, Vy Da Ward, Hue.