Hue is famous for being the pinnacle of ‘traditional’ Vietnamese food. Com hen, bánh khoai, Bún bò Huế and bún bò Huế are among some of the city’s most famous dishes. Hue cuisine is so popular that restaurants specializing in the regional delicacies are often high in demand. Mon Hue, a big-city chain restaurant, has found success with their fast-food approach to Hue food. However, as most Vietnamese people will tell you, the best-tasting Hue food is only found in Hue. If that maxim rings true, then surely the best foods come from their origin.
What is Com Hen?
Com Hen is arguably Hue’s finest export. It’s medley of rich textures and flavours means there’s something to everyone’s liking. The dish’s versatility comes in it’s unanimous appropriateness, there is never a wrong time to eat it. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and any time in between. Bowls can cost between 10,000VND – 20,000VND, it’s economical price allows people to eat as many bowls as they possibly can. Hueians who have left the city for work or study often return home to binge on the hen. One person now living in Danang once told me he would eat five bowls of com hen on return to Hue.
It’s primary ingredient is hen (baby clams) that are caught off the muddy banks of the rivers and estuaries around the central region. Served on a bed of rice or bun (vermicelli), The dish’s supporting cast include a combination of saints and sinners. Fresh produce consists of starfruit, green mango, banana leaf and a variety of herbs. It’s indulgences are fried pork rind and peanuts. Chili relish, shrimp paste and fish sauce are the relishes frequently found on the table tops of com hen restaurants. Be warned! These sauces can be challenging for foreign visitors. Ask for ‘hen nuoc’ if you want a dish with a soupy warmth or ‘com kho’ if you prefer your dish more akin to a dry summer-salad.
Everyone has their favourite place for com hen. Invite all hen fundamentalists to discuss the dish’s best restaurant and a conclusion is less likely to be reached than the reunification of Korea. Nevertheless, we’ve decided to focus this article on a restaurant where the setting is equally as majestic as the dish itself.
Com Hen Island: Microcosmic Serendipity
Con Hen, meaning baby clam island, is joined by one solitary bridge from Hue’s Vy Da ward. The island’s social-economical make-up mainly comprises of generations’ worth of hen fisheries, farmers and restaurants selling hen related specialties. Hen island is inundated with restaurants selling the same dish, it’s hard to dispute that the home of com hen is anywhere but here.
Com Hen Island’s size makes it ideal for walking around. Traffic is less troublesome than in other parts of the city. While there are plenty of restaurants to choose from , the island’s north side provides a few cafes to spend idling under shade while watching boats pass on the Huong river.
In recent times, Com Hen island’s inhabitants have been under pressure to relocate as estate agents court hospitality groups to buy the land and develop resorts there. As for now, the island continues to receive a steady flow of Vietnamese tourists who go there to try the famous dish.
It’s hard to pick a definitive com hen restaurant on the island without going through and trying every single one (I will do it! One day!) However, there is one restaurant that domestic tourists and denizens generally favor that has a few additional dishes of note. After speaking with the owner, It was hard not to include her restaurant in the article.
Hoa Dong: Com Hen Restaurant on Con Hen
Situated halfway down the west side of Hen island is Hoa Dong restaurant. The owner, Mrs Hoa, serves hen and other Hue-related dishes at a budget price with all the condiments and trimmings. Ingredients are prepared in the back of the building then stored at the restaurant’s front counter where you can watch your meal being put together.
The đặc biệt (specialty) includes extra large clams for an extra 5,000VND. Other dishes on the menu are hen chao (hen porridge), hen xao (hen salad with cracker), banh beo chen (rice cake topped with prawn and pork rind), cha (fish and pork cakes), nem (cured meat), banh loc (shrimp and pork dumpling) and trung cut (quail eggs).
As always, there’s an assortment of soft drinks and Huda beer available. Most interestingly are two homemade drinks that are slightly harder to come by in Vietnam. Firstly, a personal favourite, Ruou Nep Hue, a sweet wine made from sticky rice. Low in percentage and includes some spongy sweet fermented rice. The perfect afternoon drink on a hot day. Another drink worth investigating is sua dau phong, which translates as peanut milk!
Mrs Hoa of Hoa Dong Restaurant
Hoa Dong restaurant is in it’s third generation on existence. Opened by her grandparents in the 1960’s, Hoa has grown up among a community whose livelihood is the popularity of com hen. As with most family-owned businesses, there is apprehension whether the next generation are willing to continue the family trade.
As I spoke to Mrs Hoa, I couldn’t help but notice the Buddhist swastika tattooed in the centre of her collar bone. She explains that as a child she suffered from continuous head-splitting migraines. A local monk advised that she should have the swastika tattooed to remove the pain. Around 6 or 7, she followed the monk’s advice and the pain ceased to continue.
Com hen has a debatable history. Some say it was once the food of the kings that resided here during the Nguyen Dynasty. Others believe it was the food of the working classes since clams were so widely available. Nevertheless, it’s a food with conflicting histories and enjoyed by the majority of Hue’s population. We asked Mrs Hoa about the origins of Hen in local cuisine but she seemed unsure:
‘I think…a man and a woman were on a boat and landed on the island. Upon liking the island, they began to search for forms of food and came across the clams in the river’s banks.’
Noticing the doubt in our facial expressions, she encouraged us to sought the knowledge of island elders who could give us a better insight.
Consulting the Village Elder
After we left Hoa Dong restaurant, we darted down alleyways in search of a man called Duc, an octogenarian born and raised on the island. It took a lot of hunting but we eventually found Mr Duc taking his post-lunch nap. A lot of the information in the following paragraphs was what Mr Duc told us and while it seems sometimes conflicting, we interpreted our conversation with other resources in a vain attempt at accurate reporting. God save us.
The mythology of Com Hen Island
Hen Island lies to the east of the citadel. Further up the river sits Da Vien island. During the Nguyen Dynasty, the last reign of Vietnamese emperors, royalty and citadel dwellers believed that the two islands represented a dragon and a tiger. According to ancient the Chinese belief of Feng Shui, these animals embody the polarity of gendered energies. The physical might of the two animals push against each other in stalemate, creating harmony around them. In this case, Con Hen (the dragon) and Con Da Vien (the tiger) represent these forces and provide spiritual prosperity for the citadel which sits
between them both.
The History of Com Hen Island
The Nguyen Dynasty relocated the country’s capital to Hue around 1802. It’s first emperor, Gia Long, ordered the construction of the Citadel on the grounds of Phu Xuan village. The villagers were pushed out of the construction’s boundaries. On demanding compensation, Emperor Gia Long offered the villagers some land surrounding the citadel. Some of these villagers made residence upon Com Hen island and began farming water buffalo there. The island also hosted rituals when livestock was slaughtered for sacrificial offerings to deities.
The Phu Xuan villagers would eventually use the banks of Con Hen for fishing and came upon the benefits of clams as a food source. The alluvial deposits in the island’s banks provided the perfect habitat for shellfish to breed. Given that The villagers were peasantry, they were resourceful in their creation of com hen; using local herbs, fruit and rice leftover from previous meals. Over time, the popularity of com hen spread throughout Hue and eventually across the country.
Com Hen Island Today
The construction of the nearby Thao Long dam has deprived Con Hen of the brackish waters once used for clam farming. Nowadays, Com Hen Island imports it’s mussels from nearby fisheries. It is also the primary distributor for the city’s hen restaurants. However, the island’s restaurants keep to true to com hen’s original recipe. Chefs cook the rice early in the morning to imitate a ‘leftover’ texture. Local herbs and fruits dress the dish and continues to be affordable for everyone in the city.
Special thanks to Grit brethren Phuoc Tai for taking to time translate some articles and speak to Mr Duc for the purpose of this post.