Phu Xuan prepares feast fit for kings
Ho Thi Hoang Anh descends from a long line of Hue royal chefs. Her restaurant and her creations are now famous around the world. Khanh Chi reports.
In just a few years Ho Thi Hoang Anh, the owner of a HCM City restaurant that specialises in traditional Hue dishes, has helped to introduce Vietnamese food to France, Germany, Japan, and most recently Sweden on the restaurant’s “Viet Nam Day”. Trained in nuclear physics at Da Lat University, Anh returned to her family’s cooking tradition and has chosen to dedicate her life to perfecting Hue’s delicacies.
Inner Sanctum: You studied to be a nuclear physics researcher, but later decided to become an expert in Hue food. Did you inherit cooking skills from your relatives?
I was born and raised in central Hue City, which used to be the capital of South Viet Nam under Lord Nguyen Phuoc Nguyen (1613-1636), and it has its own long-lasting culinary tradition.
My grandfather was Ho Van Ta, the leader of the Thuong Thien group responsible for preparing food for the king and royal banquets under King Khai Dinh and King Bao Dai. Growing up I had the chance to learn from my relatives who were trained to prepare food for royal banquets, particularly through Tet (Lunar New Year) festivals and ancestor-worshipping days.
I also paid attention to the way dishes were decorated and made aesthetically pleasing, even for our daily meals.
Under the Nguyen Dynasty, for young men in my Phuoc Yen Village it was an honour for them to work in the Thuong Thien group. When feudalism ended, all of them changed professions and they thought they had left cooking behind.
After I graduated from Da Lat University’s Nuclear Physics Faculty, I followed my husband to settle in HCM City. In the first years of being married, I stayed at home to raise my children and spent most of my time preparing food for my family, relatives and friends.
Impressed with my cooking, they encouraged me to open a restaurant, and in 1996 I opened the Phu Xuan Restaurant in HCM City.
Inner Sanctum: Why is it named Phu Xuan?
Simply speaking, Phu means wealth and Xuan means joy. And anyone would wish for that. Historically, Phu Xuan was the original name for Hue, and was the country’s capital city under the Emperor Quang Trung and was the first capital city of the united Viet Nam from Nam Quan to Ca Mau under the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945). Nowadays, Hue is still a cultural centre of Viet Nam.
Inner Sanctum: How would you describe Hue’s culinary heritage?
Viet Nam was officially united under the Nguyen Dynasty, and the menus for royal parties combined specialities from the north and the south. I think Hue’s culinary tradition is the height of Viet Nam’s culinary heritage. Because Hue was once the country’s former imperial capital, it incorporates tastes from every corner of the country. It has inherited unique delicacies in ways that no other region has.
Inner Sanctum: What makes Phu Xuan different from other restaurants offering Hue food?
Currently, I have not thought of creating new dishes. I am trying to collect documents and to learn from others to restore the ancient dishes of Hue, especially from the Nguyen Dynasty.
Phu Xuan specialises in serving traditional Hue food cooked by myself and my family. It is not a big restaurant, but it is a way to introduce the traditional dishes and typical cultural features of our nation.
For that reason, Phu Xuan has attracted domestic and foreign guests, including diplomatic delegations.
They come to Phu Xuan to taste the food and to learn more about the dishes in a warm, family-like atmosphere, like in ancient Hue.
Inner Sanctum: How many countries have you introduced to Hue food?
Some Japanese tourists came to my restaurant in HCM City on a recommendation to taste Hue food. After they went back to Japan, they asked me to go there to prepare Hue delicacies with Vietnamese ingredients sold on the Japanese market. The visit resulted in the opening of a Phu Xuan restaurant in Tokyo three years ago.
It was so successful that they asked my permission to open another Phu Xuan Restaurant in Tokyo, where I would be in charge of the ‘soul’. Since then, I have kept in regular contact with them and visit twice a year to make sure that the Hue dishes still maintain their ‘soul’.
The restaurant looks exactly the same as the Phu Xuan Restaurant in HCM City from the interior decoration to the staff uniform and the dishes. Quite a few local newspapers have published positive reviews.
In 2003 I was invited to Nantes, in France, by the Centre for Culture Research and Development to organise a New Year’s party with Hue royal dishes. The participants were impressed with the banquet and the Vietnamese culinary art.
In mid-2002, the Germany-Asia Culture Exchange Centre invited me to participate their Viet Nam Culture Week at the Munich University campus. I was responsible for reproducing the old Gia Lac market on New Year’s day to introduce Hue food. On this occasion, Professor Tran Van Khe also made a vivid presentation on Vietnamese food.
Late last year, I organised a diplomatic buffet, featuring typical Vietnamese dishes in Sweden during Viet Nam Day. I was assisted by professional cooks from the Sai Gon Tourist Agency who prepared delicacies from the north and the south, and I acted as manager and made dishes from the central region including yen sao chung hat sen (swallow’s nest steamed with lotus seed) and chao hai sam gan nai (holothurian and deer sinew soup), which are both traditional royal food.
Through my trips abroad, I found that people in other countries like the flavour of Vietnamese food, and I think that through food festivals we could easily introduce images of our country, and the friendliness and hospitality of the Vietnamese people together with the long-lasting culinary art.
Inner Sanctum: Besides your work at Phu Xuan Restaurant, you also teach students at the city College of Tourism to prepare Hue dishes. How can you help your students sustain the ‘Hue soul’ in the dishes they cook by themselves?
For a long time I wanted to introduce the fine features of Vietnamese cooking to people both at home and abroad. Instructing the younger generation to preserve the national specialties is one way for me to realise my wishes.
I always tell my students that if you can cook any traditional Vietnamese dish, you have contributed to preserving the national cultural heritage.
Inner Sanctum: Not only have you cooked, but you have modelled in a series of photographer Dao Hoa Nu’s artistic photos entitled Hue, My Motherland and in the Hue Cultural Heritage at the Centre for Hue Ancient Capital Preservation. How did you manage to do both?
Like other Hue women, I used to be thoroughly instructed how to cook meals and dress well. I studied at the Dong Khanh Senior Secondary School, where female teachers showed their students how to wear an ao dai (Vietnamese traditional long dress) in a sophisticated and delicate manner. All these lessons helped me to become well-rounded and refined while I was still young.
I also wanted to know how the royal daily activities took place. My husband studies Vietnamese fine arts and culture, so he helps me to collect related documents and images.
Inner Sanctum: Who will take over your business when you grow tired of it?
I have not thought of this because I just regard my work as the ordinary housework for any woman. My husband researches literature and ancient fine arts, and I have two sons, one studies architecture and the other medicine.
When my children were small, I used to carry them on my back when I was doing housework, preparing meals and making cakes. Once they grew up, they enjoyed family meals and dishes that I cooked. They may become the ones who take an active part in protecting and preserving the national delicacies. – VNS
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