A Little Comfort from Hue
By Tristan Ngo
When Darryl Bethea, who writes the ‘Imbibe’ wine column for AsiaLIFE, rang me up to ask if I’d be interested in pairing some wine with local dishes, I decided to invite him for lunch at Nam Giao. I’ve been going to Nam Giao for 14 years — pretty much since I first arrived in Saigon. This restaurant offers Hue cuisine and is famous among locals, but not so well-known by the expat community. Finding some wine to pair with Hue comfort cuisine isn’t easy given that the region’s food is all about spices and piquant sauces.
A 30-metre walk down hem 136 off of Le Thanh Ton Street, just before Ben Thanh Market, is where you will find Nam Giao. Rows of beauty supply shops filled with dozens of women giving manicures and pedicures line both sides of the alley. For more than 20 years this family-owned establishment has been serving up some of Hue’s best comfort dishes, such as banh canh cua (shrimp, crab meat and noodle), com hen (tiny clams and rice), banh nam (ground shrimp and pork steamed with rice flour in banana leaves).
We started with a dish of banh beo tom tuoi. Banh beo is steamed rice-flour cake topped with ground shrimp, chopped scallions, and pork skin, served with a side of fish sauce with freshly chopped chilli.
Bun bo Hue is a classic Hue spicy beef noodle soup. The dish is often admired for its balance of spicy, sour, salty and sweet. Its predominant flavour is lemongrass. The only thing that didn’t impress me was the beef. I thought it could have used another five hours in the broth because it was a bit too chewy for my taste. However, local diners seemed to enjoy gnawing away on both the meat and bone.
I also ordered the bun cha cua, which is served in the same broth as bun bo. The difference between the two soups is that bun cha cua is served with crabcake paste instead of beef. I love these crabcakes. They are fresh and you can feel the crunchiness of the crustaceans, while the pepper does not overpower, but offers just enough to tingle your palate.
Nam Giao is one of the best Hue restaurants in the city and is a perfect place to try pairing wine with spicy Asian food. If you’d like to know more about what wines go best with these dishes, check out the ‘Imbibe’ column.