Owing to its sacred place in Vietnamese culture, the lotus has been brought to the culmination of Vietnamese culinary practices, especially the royal court cuisine of Hue.
Lotus flowers (Source: Internet)
The sacred lotus flower in Vietnamese culture
Lotuses are ubiquitous and can be found almost everywhere in Vietnam, but the below three places are what Vietnamese people automatically think of:
- Sen Village (Lotus village) in Nghe An Province, the birthplace of the late President Ho Chi Minh.
- Huế: Lotus flowers are the royal essence of the former imperial capital.
- Đồng Tháp Mười in the Mekong Delta, known for the omnipresence of lotuses.
For thousands of years, generations of Vietnamese people grew up listening to lullabies in the form of folk songs sung by their moms, grandmas, and sisters. Prior to the spread of literacy, and prior to the existence of an official writing system, these values have unconsciously seeped into their souls and fueled a sense of belonging and community. Vietnamese folklore portrays the most authentic picture of an agricultural society, representing all the vicissitudes of everyday life. And the sacred lotus - the unofficial national flower of Vietnam - has rooted itself firmly in the spiritual and religious life of Vietnamese people:
- “Trong đầm gì đẹp bằng sen. Lá xanh bông trắng lại chen nhuỵ vàng. Nhuỵ vàng bông trắng là xanh. Gần bùn mà chẳng hôi tanh mùi bùn.” - “Nothing in the pond could be more beautiful than a lotus. Green leaves, white flowers, dotted with yellow stamens. Yellow stamens, white flowers, and green leaves. Growing in the mire but not having the smell of mud.”.
- “Tháp Mười đẹp nhất bông sen. Việt Nam đẹp nhất có tên Bác Hồ.” - “The most beautiful thing in Thap Muoi is a lotus flower. The most beautiful thing in Vietnam is Uncle Ho’s name.”.
Vietnamese girl with lotus flowers (Source: Internet)
Known as the flower of the dawn, lotus flowers close and sink underwater throughout the night, only to rise and open again when the first rays of sunlight peek out from behind the clouds. The lotus immortalized in art and religion teaches us to rise up from adversity and to not be contaminated by one’s surroundings.
Now, let’s embark on a Hue tour and learn more about the legacy of this sacred plant in Hue royal court cuisine!
Lotus in Hue royal court gastronomy
Having been the last imperial capital of Vietnam for almost a century and a half (from 1802 to 1945), Hue never fails to make it to the bucket list of international tourists when they travel to Vietnam. Its enormous historical significance, aesthetic value of architecture and natural settings, and exquisite cuisine make Hue tours a must for visitors. A culinary/cultural tour is one of the best tours in Hue, Vietnam to explore this graceful and elegant city from the inside out.
While Chinese imperial dishes boast utmost regal opulence and sumptuous luxury from rare and unique recipes, Hue royal court cuisine mostly utilizes rural ingredients. There isn’t much of a difference between royal meals and that of commoners when it comes to ingredients, except for the ‘Bát Trân’, or ‘eight treasures’: peacock, pheasant, rhino skin, bear paw, orangutan lip, elephant leg, and salangane’s nest. What set Hue royal court cuisine apart from the rest are the cooking and garnishing techniques, as well as its medicinal properties. Basically, the royal culinary practices of Hue are commoner cuisine refined to serve royalty, and in turn, affected the latter.
In the sphere of gastronomy, the lotus is viewed as an incredibly versatile ingredient and almost every part of it can be made into delectable dishes, from sweet to savory.
Huế lotus tea (trà sen Huế)
Lotus tea has been a staple of Vietnamese tea culture ever since it was first created for King Tu Duc in the 19th century. Lotus flowers are intrinsically a symbol of divine purity, and their fragrance is the quintessence of the universe. Thus, lotus-scented tea was once a beverage reserved for royalty and the aristocracy. While Hanoi lotus tea (scented with lotus flowers from West Lake) is probably more widely known, Hue lotus tea is somehow more unique and special. Hue lotus tea, along with Hue royal tea, isn’t just a thirst-quenching beverage but an art form and a cultural code of the former capital.
Tea embalmed in a lotus flower (Source: Internet)
Making Hue lotus tea for the emperors was a very complicated process and required a lot of care. Lotus flowers must be Bách Diệp (hundreds of petals) grown in Tịnh Tâm Pond (meaning calming the heart). The type of tea used must be either dried black tea or green tea of premium quality. At night – when the flowers are slightly open and the celestial nectar is at its fullest, the servants would row out on the pond and begin the embalming process. They put tea inside the flowers and then bound them up to prevent them from opening. Early in the morning, the servants would row out again to collect the tea before the aroma could diffuse into the air under the sun.
Hue longan and lotus seed sweetened porridge (chè sen long nhãn Huế)
If longans are ‘Vương giả chi quả’, which means the king of fruit, lotus flowers are named ‘Vương hậu chi hoa’, meaning the queen of flowers, along with orchids. Both of the ingredients are considered a match made in heaven – and chè sen long nhãn is an indispensable dish in any celebration of Hue people.
Possessing the nutty flavor of lotus seeds and the natural sweetness of longan flesh, this tidbit is not only satisfying to eat, but it also packs a powerful medicinal punch - a natural cure for insomnia. Since this porridge is made entirely of fresh lotus seeds and longan flesh, it won’t be until lunar July that you can taste the best dish of chè sen long nhãn. This is when the luscious longans come into season and lotus seeds start to ripen.
Chè long nhãn hạt sen Huế (Source: Internet)
Just like many other delicacies across the country, longan and lotus seed porridge is made with slight variations depending on the region. In the minds of Hue culinary artisans, cooking is art and the food is a work of art. Not only do they enjoy the food by their mouth, but also by their eyes and mind. The ambiance and the food presentation are as important as the taste. And this sweet delight is no exception. It requires a perfect combination of techniques and subtlety, owing to the ingenuity of the chef.
The lotus seeds must be freshly harvested from Tịnh Tâm Pond and stripped off of their papery skin. Make sure to remove the green shoots inside before steaming the seeds because they are extremely bitter. The longans must be the endemic type of Hue with juicy, sweet flesh and small pits that are about the size of a lotus seed. Then, the pits are carefully dug out and replaced with the lotus seeds. To maintain the crunchy goodness of longan flesh, bring the sugar syrup (that has been used for simmering the lotus seeds) to a boil, turn off the heat, and then add the longan and lotus seeds. If you want to enhance the sweetness, simmer the mixture for a while and then take it away from the heat.
Tịnh Tâm Pond (Source: Internet)
Longan and lotus seed sweetened porridge doesn’t have much color on its own, nor does it have a long list of ingredients. To spotlight its refinement, elegance, and purity, the porridge is poured into a small white or blue porcelain bowl. It is not supposed to be eaten warm or with shaved ice, but it should be refrigerated. The best way to fully enjoy chè sen long nhãn is to sit by the riverside of the Huong River and watch it slowly flow by while tuning in to the Hue folk songs resonating in the background.
Hue rice steamed in a lotus leaf (cơm sen Huế)
Hue is home to a variety of rice dishes such as mussel rice, Hades’ rice, rice steamed in a lotus leaf, etc. While mussel rice was originally a peasant dish that later turned into a haute cuisine masterpiece, the Hue style rice steamed in a lotus leaf was intended for the emperors and his families from the beginning.
Cơm sen Huế (Source: Internet)
There are two types of com sen: one is vegan and the other is omnivorous. Hence, the ingredients and cooking techniques for each type are different. Lotus seeds and rice, on the other hand, remain irreplaceable. The rice must be new and aromatic, tender yet chewy when cooked. When it comes to picking lotus seeds, there are two options: dried or fresh. Fresh lotus seeds are ideal as they’re more fragrant and packed with more health benefits, and they cook faster too. Dried lotus seeds lose nutrients and aroma in the dehydration process and need to be soaked in water for several hours before cooking. Other than rice and lotus seeds, the fulfilling, nutritious, and medicinal com sen requires quite an abundance of ingredients:
- Vegan: Fried tofu, vegetarian sausage, vegetarian shrimp, shiitake mushrooms, carrot, green beans, a lotus leaf, salt, pepper, sugar, vegetable oil.
- Omnivorous: Replace vegan options with their counterparts such as Vietnamese pork sausage, roasted cinnamon pork, fried egg, Chinese sausage, shrimp, chicken, char xiu, etc., in addition to the rest of the above ingredients.
The lotus seeds (green shoots removed) are rinsed and cooked (boiled or steamed), before being seasoned with monosodium glutamate, salt, and pepper. To enrich the flavor of the rice, use the cooking water used for boiling the lotus seeds or the lotus leaf. Separate the grains and let them cool down while preparing other ingredients by cutting them into small cubes before stir-frying them with the lotus seeds. The most important thing is to make sure all the ingredients are thoroughly cooked at the same time.
A dish of com sen is garnished with lotus petals, mimicking the shape of a blooming flower. Sometimes the cook will stir-fry the rice along with the other ingredients, and sometimes they will just put the fillings on top of the rice before steaming them for about 10-15 minutes. The rice and all the other fillings neatly wrapped in a lotus leaf are suffused with the lightweight scent of this ancient imperial city’s cultural hallmark, representing the perfect blend of nature and sophistication, as well as visual aesthetics and flavors.
In the past, the three delicacies above were categorized as luxury goods and intended for royalty only. Nowadays, they can be found pretty much everywhere in Hue in both high-end restaurants and hole-in-the-wall eateries. On your next Hue tour, don’t forget to eat like royalty!
Learn more about Central Vietnam here:
Central Vietnam - Heritage Trail 7 Days
Getting to Know Bun Bo Hue - The Ultimate Hue Noodle Soup
Vietnam Food Tours – The Complete Guide for Vegans and Vegetarians