Anyone who isn’t confused really doesn’t understand the situation.
~Edward R. Murrow

Clustered around the banks of the Sông Hương (Perfume) River, Huế is a quaint city in the Thừa Thiên–Huế province and the imperial capital of Vietnam held by Nguyễn feudal lords during the 18th to the mid 20th centuries. Well, until the French, then later the Japanese and then the French again and finally the Americans, interceded. No doubt, for typically myopic home politicians, this was way too much dominion for locals but bred sublime cuisine.

Huế, sometimes referred to as the City of Ghosts, is centrally located on the Indochina peninsula, a few miles inland from the South China Sea with verdant mountains nestled behind…and vast palaces, pagodas, colored tiles, rice paddies, tombs. A culture where ancestors never die. Huế was the royal capital until 1945, when then emperor Bảo Đại abdicated, and a government now convened in Hà Nội (Hanoi).

Huế was the site of perhaps the most ruthless battle of the Vietnam (or American) War. At the height of this costly and equivocal conflict, there were some 500,000 American troops in the country. Only a rather small percentage of the US public even knew where Vietnam was located.

In preparation, Vietcong troops launched a series of attacks on isolated garrisons in the highlands of central Vietnam and along the Laotian and Cambodian frontiers. Then, one early morning in late January, 1968, Vietcong forces emerged from their dark tunnels and holes to launch the Tet holiday offensive. In coordinated attacks throughout South Vietnam, they assaulted major urban areas and military bases in an attempt to foment rebellion against the Saigon regime and their American backers. Callous fighting ensued for several weeks, some of the most brutal at Hué — much of which was house to house with US Marines facing overwhelming odds, and the North Vietnamese suffering heavy casualties. Eventually, artillery and air support was brought to the forefront, and then nightmarish civilian massacres occurred. No burials, no altars.

But, as a result of the words and images from Saigon, the homeland press and public began to challenge the administration’s increasingly costly war. In the wake of the Tet offensive, the respected journalist Walter Cronkite, who had been a moderate observer of the war’s progress, noted that it seemed “more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.”

Oh, the sublime scents, flavors, sights, sounds of this evocative city. So many ambrosial even balmy and slurpy dishes in the Vietnamese repertoire originated in the Thừa Thiên–Huế region.

BUN BO HUE

2 lbs oxtail, cut into 2″-3″ pieces or pigs’ feet cut into chunks
2 lbs beef shanks, cut into 2″-3″pieces
2 lbs pork necks
2 lbs beef marrow bones, cut into 2″-3″ pieces
1 lb beef brisket

8 lemongrass stalks, leafy tops discarded and fleshy part retained
1 bunch scallions, white parts only, halved lengthwise
2 T paprika
1/2 C fish sauce

1 1/2 t red pepper flakes
1 t annatto seeds and/or saffron, ground

1/4 C+ canola oil
1 C shallots, peeled and sliced
1 t fresh garlic, peeled and minced
1/4 C lemon grass, minced
2 t shrimp paste
2 t sea salt
2 t local honey

1 package dried rice (bún) noodles

Thai basil sprigs, chopped
Cilantro leaves, chopped
Mint leaves, chopped
Green or red cabbage, thinly sliced
Lemon wedges
Lime wedges
Yellow onion, thinly sliced

Bring some water or broth to a rolling boil, and then add the oxtails, beef shank, and pork bones. Return the water to a boil and boil for 5 minutes. Drain the bones into a colander and rinse under cold running water. Rinse the pot and return the rinsed oxtails, neck bones, and shanks to the pot. Add the marrow bones and brisket.

Crush the lemongrass with the end of a heavy chef’s knofe and add it to the pot along with the scallions, paprika and fish sauce. Add 8 quarts fresh water and bring to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat so the liquid is at a simmer and skim off any scum that rises to the surface.

After 45 minutes, ready an ice water bath, then check the brisket for doneness to ascertain whether the juices run clear. When the brisket is done, remove it from the pot (reserving the cooking liquid) and immediately submerge it in the ice water bath to cease the cooking process and give the meat a firmer texture. When the brisket is completely cool, remove from the water and pat dry. Also set aside the oxtails, beef shanks, pork shanks and beef marrow bones.

Continue to simmer the stock for another 2 hours, skimming as needed to remove any scum that forms on the surface. Remove from the heat and remove and discard the large solids. Strain through a fine mesh sieve into a large saucepan. Skim most of the fat from the surface of the stock. Return the stock to a simmer over medium heat.

In a spice grinder, grind the red pepper flakes and annatto seeds into a coarse powder. In a frying pan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the ground red pepper flakes and annatto seeds and cook, stirring, for 10 seconds. Add the shallots, garlic, lemon grass, and shrimp paste and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes more, until the mixture is aromatic and the shallots are just beginning to soften.

Add the contents of the frying pan to the simmering stock along with the salt and honey and simmer for 20 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and more honey, if necessary.

Arrange the basil, cilantro, mint, cabbage, lemon and lime wedges, and onion slices on a platter and place on the table. Thinly slice the brisket against the grain. Divide the cooked noodles among warmed soup bowls, then divide the brisket slices evenly among the bowls, placing them on top of the noodles. Ladle the hot stock over the noodles and beef and serve promptly, accompanied with the platter of garnishes.

The only difference between (people) all the world over is one of degree, and not of kind, even as there is between trees of the same species. Wherein is the cause for anger, envy or discrimination?
~Mahatma Gandhi

Pot-au-feu translates as “pot on the fire,” which is hearty French peasant fare. Granted, there is no raw beef, ginger, cardomom, cinnamon, mint, Thai chilies, basil, fish sauce, noodles (banh pho) or differing condiments and sauces as are found in phở (See February 3, 2009). Also, those seductive noodle sucking sounds are sadly lacking in pot-au-feu. But, given their culinary roots, cultural links, and France’s occupancy, colonization and even decimation of the Vietnamese peoples (preceded by China, followed by Japan and then the US) — it would not be surprising if feu slowly morphed into phở. Both words seem suspiciously harmonious to the ear. However, some etymologists dipute this assertion, especially given the stark culinary dissimilarities between the two dishes and due to some vague historical references.

POT AU FEU

1 lb beef shoulder or brisket
6 pieces of oxtail, cut 1 1/2″ thick
6 beef short ribs
1 veal shank, bone-in

6 whole cloves
2 onions, cut in halves
6 leeks, white part only
2 small celery roots, cut into quarters
2 medium turnips, cut into quarters
1 head garlic, cut transversely
4 medium carrots, cut into 4″ lengths
1 bouquet garni (2 sprig of flat parsley, 2 sprigs of fresh thyme, and 2 bay leaves, stringed together)
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

4 new red and white potatoes, peeled and cut in half
1 cabbage head, cored and cut into 7 wedges

1 baguette, sliced
Parmigiano-reggiano, grated

1/2 lb cornichons
1 C coarse sea salt
1 C hot Dijon mustard

In a large pot, combine the beef, oxtail, short ribs, and veal shank, and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat, and as soon as the water comes to a boil, remove from the heat. Set the meat aside and throw out the water. Clean the pot and then put the meat right back into the pot.

Push cloves into each onion half and add the onions to the pot, along with the leeks, celery roots, turnips, garlic, carrots, and bouquet garni. Season with salt and pepper and cover with cold water.

Bring the pot to a slow simmer, gradually, and let cook over medium low heat until the meat is tender or around 2 1/2 hours. Skim the cooking liquid with a ladle periodically to remove scum and foam. Add the potatoes and cabbage and cook for an additional 30 minutes, until soft. Adjust the seasoning as needed.

Remove the beef (shoulder or brisket) from the pot and slice into thick pieces. Remove the veal shank from the pot and cut the meat off the bone, again into ample pieces. Retrieve the marrow from the veal bone.

Pour some broth into serving bowls along with grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese with thick slices of toasted baguette. Arrange the meats, marrow, and vegetables on a serving platter and ladle some cooking liquid over and around. Serve the rest in a sauce boat.

Put the cornichons, sea salt, and Dijon mustard into bowls on the table.