Ok back to the Hell...I'd love to share one of my favorite Hue's flavors: rice mixed with mussels. I don't know since when I fell in love with this "bibimbap" of Vietnamese version. Whenever I'm at any Huế restaurant, I surely ask whether they serve it or not, if they have, I'll order. But it's not always good at every place!
A bowl of cơm hến (rice mixed with mussels) at Cố Đô - a Huế restaurant in district 5, Chinatown.
I have a very nice cousin, many years older than me, he used to be a pilot of the old Saigon regime, a big, tall guy. Sadly, he already passed away in 1979 after a few years in the horrible education camp after Saigon liberation. His wife from Huế, she used to be very good at making "cơm hến" at home (she moved to US in early 1990s, I don't think now she has a chance to do this Vietnamese "bibimbap" there). While still here, in Saigon, she did few times and asked me to try, that was my very first time to taste "cơm hến". I did enjoy. I still remember what she said" the secret of a good cơm hến comes not from the rice but from the mussels and the shrimp paste". I believe so.
Cơm hến used to be a dish for the poor in Huế (central of Vietnam) in the old days, we need to do something with the leftover rice from last night meal and by somehow it became a dish for the royal family in Huế citadel and these days - in the menu of many fancy Huế restaurants in Saigon. Exactly like an ugly duckling into a beautiful swan!
Rice mixed with mussels is something really out of my imagination in the beginning. Just a yesterday's leftover rice but when it's mixed with veggies, roasted peanut, sesame, cooked tiny mussels, some spicy sauce and ...voilà we have a dish, an awesome dish.
It's quite difficult to describe how does it taste - this "cơm hến"! It's a combination of different ingredients: cold rice, fresh veggies, flavorful herbs, sour taste of star fruit, pungent aroma from shrimp paste, warm tasty mussels, hot chili, crispy deep fried pork's skin, tasteful roasted peanut and white sesame...served with a bowl of the super clear mussels's soup.
The image of an aged woman with white hair (or in Huế dialect we say "o", i.e old woman) selling cơm hến as street food near to the Perfume River, is probably never forgettable to many visitors to this famous site in Huế. "O Huế" surely has the rice cooked last night, mixed with the mussels she bought from the early next morning catch at the river. I didn't have a chance to taste the original cơm hến there, so I'd love to do it one day.
To me it's a healthy dish, not many rice, a lot of veggies, the taste is gently rich, but it could be strong due to the shrimp paste, and spicy! Anyway I'd love to recommend you to try "a beautiful swan!"
This video gives you more tips where to try the specialities in Hue, including cơm hến, check it out!