Known as banh nam, the fragile little dumpling is designed to be rolled up with chopsticks or a spoon; dipped in its personal nuoc mam, a honey-colored condiment sprinkled with chopped chiles; then swallowed in a single chew — its supple, barely meaty and fermented notes extra of a tease than an try to fulfill any specific craving. This dish, if you wish to name it such, is one which may have discovered its manner onto the desk of an emperor again when the royals nonetheless held nominal energy within the Vietnamese Imperial Metropolis of Hue, Truong tells me.
Her restaurant, Truong Tien, buried deep inside a mall on the Vietnamese purchasing middle in Falls Church, specializes within the dishes that collectively are often known as Hue royal delicacies, named for the traditional imperial metropolis the place the preparations sprang to life throughout the Nguyen dynasty of the Nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Imperial plates are usually not completely international to the D.C. area — chef Gene Binh Nguyen at Current restaurant, additionally in Falls Church, has been buying and selling on his interpretation of royal delicacies for years — however I’ve encountered nothing just like the meals at Truong Tien in my years of studying and writing about Vietnamese cooking.
There could also be a easy cause for this: Many, if not most, of the refugees who got here to the USA after the autumn of Saigon weren’t uncovered to Hue royal delicacies. Imperial dishes had been, as Truong explains, ready solely for the emperor, and people contained in the palace, even when they knew the recipes (which they in all probability didn’t), weren’t inclined to share the secrets and techniques. Hue royal delicacies, in different phrases, has not been codified in cookbooks in the identical manner French cooking has.
Truong, nonetheless, says she had an ancestor who was a excessive official within the Nguyen dynasty. This ancestor — I couldn’t fairly pinpoint whether or not he was a great-grandfather or great-great-grandfather — would deliver residence meals from the palace, and his household would start the painstaking technique of reverse-engineering the dishes to disclose their mysteries.
As soon as unlocked, these recipes turned household heirlooms, handed down from one technology to a different, till they landed in Truong’s kitchen. This type of hand-me-down information naturally raises a query or two, similar to: How shut are Truong’s dishes to those served to the emperor all these years in the past? And have the recipes misplaced one thing in translation, as they handed from the palace to a succession of residence cooks, each farther from the unique supply?
Once I inquire about this passing of data, Truong’s enterprise guide and unofficial interpreter Toan Ngo gives a solution, based mostly partly on his years of friendship with the house prepare dinner turned chef. Ngo means that Truong’s ancestors had the expertise, self-discipline and curiosity essential to duplicate these difficult dishes. They’re “perhaps not 100% however at the least 90 p.c” genuine, he says.
But Truong would be the first to inform you she has made concessions to the imperial cooking as she realized it again in Danang, her hometown, simply down the coast from Hue. For starters, the parts are bigger than any emperor would have accepted; the royal desk, Truong and Ngo say, would creak underneath the burden of fifty or so dishes, every maybe not more than a single beautiful chew. Such jewelry-box cooking, nonetheless, doesn’t reduce it in America, the place our sense of worth is usually measured by way of quantity.
“For those who make it too small, they’ll complain that they don’t get a lot,” Truong says, by means of Ngo’s translation.
At age 55, Truong has entered the restaurant enterprise later in life, following years as a jewellery designer. She nonetheless has a store on the Eden Heart, Yellow Diamond Jewellery, however it’s dormant whereas Truong oversees all features of her restaurant. Her inexperience within the hospitality enterprise has often led to awkward moments, particularly within the early days, particularly for Western diners who, like me, might have been handed a single-page menu written completely in Vietnamese. However even after the introduction of a thick, beautiful, leather-bound menu, composed in each Vietnamese and English, I’m nonetheless not satisfied you get the expertise Truong needs you to have must you observe the usual American protocol of ordering an appetizer, entree and dessert.
Don’t get me mistaken. I’ve invited mates to Truong Tien, and we’ve cobbled collectively magnificent meals, counting on little greater than our starvation and pure inquisitiveness. I’ve breathed within the lemongrass and shrimp-paste aromatics of bun bo Hue, the wealthy, multidimensional noodle soup you could decorate with recent herbs and garnishes, together with sliced banana blossoms, even when you have little management over the bowl’s chili-oil spice, usually extra suggestive than aggressive. I’ve extracted tapioca dumplings from their banana-leaf cocoons and savored their spicy, shrimp-heavy facilities. I’ve delighted within the crispy, rice-flour shells of banh khoai, every filled with shrimp, mung-bean sprouts and different morsels, then wrapped in lettuce leaves and served in a taco tray, as if to emphasise the dish’s contrasts to the bigger, extra crepe-like banh xeo.
However till you spend time with Truong and are available to grasp the fundamental principals of Hue royal delicacies, you don’t know what you don’t know. You possibly can pull up a chair in Truong’s heat, wood-heavy eating room and luxuriate within the jade and porcelain antiques or the illuminated photographs of the Ngo Mon Gate that results in the traditional imperial metropolis, however till you let go and provides the chef full management over your meal, you’ll by no means get the complete expertise. You’ll by no means eat like an emperor.
On my final two visits to Truong Tien, I put myself within the proprietor’s arms. I used to be handled to a stately pageant of plates and particular person bites. I reveled in a small bowl of fish-cake soup, that includes thick, housemade noodles and peppery sausages fashioned from fruits of the ocean. I lapped up banh beo, these steamed rice desserts infused with pork and shrimp, then topped with their dehydrated counterparts, pork rinds and dried shrimp. I peeled again the banana leaf wrapper on my nem chua, a cured nugget of floor pork that promptly punched me within the face with a roundhouse of uncooked garlic. I used to be even introduced what Truong calls “rice with seven dishes” (or eight, because the case could also be), a sort of emperor’s meal contained to at least one overflowing plate.
The rice is surrounded on all sides by impeccably ready bites, showcasing the sort of expertise that Truong has developed through the years in her residence kitchen. Maybe they don’t examine, visually, to the frilly, vegetable-carving strategies usually related to Hue royal delicacies, however they aptly reveal her obvious ease at producing all kinds of dishes: pickled mustard greens, shrimp balls, lotus root salad and even gio thu, the compressed puck of pig offal, directly gelatinous and crunchy. The plate is a compact tour de pressure of Truong’s facility with the delicacies.
The rice plate additionally comes with an unstated profit: a comparatively abbreviated dinner. In contrast to an actual royal meal, the rice plate doesn’t require an funding of time, because the kitchen trots out one dish after one other in a Nineteenth-century procession that may tax our Twenty first-century consideration spans. However like each meal right here, the plate ends with a free of charge dessert, perhaps a tapioca dumpling crammed with mung bean paste, a small ending chew that reminds you, simply as you’re about to go away, what a jewel Truong Tien actually is.
6763 Wilson Blvd., contained in the Eden Heart, Falls Church, Va., 703-216-2868.
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to eight p.m. Monday by way of Wednesday and Friday by way of Sunday. Closed Thursday.
Nearest Metro: East Falls Church, with a couple of mile stroll to the restaurant.
Costs: $1.50 to $34.95 for all gadgets on the menu.