Friday, August 14, 2015

Discovering Hến Rice in Central Việt Nam by Chris Galvin



Hà shook her head and frowned. “Don’t eat hến! You’ll get stomach ache. Even some Vietnamese people can’t eat it.”

“I’ll be fine,” I said. “I really like hến clams. I just had some the other day.”

“Really?” Hà’s eyes widened. “Where?”

“On Trương Định Street, near my hotel. I went with Tuấn. In fact I was going to eat breakfast there today, before you sent Sương to pick me up. ” Sương was Hà’s waitress.

I’d fled Hà Nội’s constant February drizzle and returned to sunny Huế, which I’d fallen in love with a few weeks earlier, but the rain had found me again. It sluiced down the hotel windows, rattling the panes and waking me up each morning. Sometimes my new friend Tuấn would pick me up on his way to Hà’s restaurant, where he sold tours of Huế’s historic pagodas and emperors’ mausoleums. I’d spend the morning practising my Vietnamese with the tour guides and restaurant staff. On this morning, the rain pounded so hard I was sure Tuấn would stay home. I’d planned to make a dash for the cluster of restaurants up the road from my hotel. They all served hến clams: cơm hến (with rice), cháo hến (with rice porridge), and bún hến (with rice noodles).

I’d opened my door to find Sương standing in a wet circle on the carpet, rain dripping off her poncho, jeans soaked from the knees down. I’d slid into place behind her on her motorbike, hunkering down under the rear flap of her poncho, my legs folded horizontally high above the footrests to keep them dry. It was no use. The rain sprayed up off the road and soaked me all the same.

When we arrived at the restaurant, Hà poured hot coffee and explained in English: “Tuấn busy. He say invite you for breakfast. He say you not go out in the rain.” Then she’d offered me beef noodle soup, but Sương suggested we eat cơm hến instead.

Hà switched back to Vietnamese. “You really didn’t get sick after eating hến?”

I told her I’d also tried the tiny clams on rice crackers while visiting Hội An. The waitress had watched, surprised I could eat such spicy food. Like Hà, she’d warned me about stomach aches, but I remained healthy.

“Trương Định Street is the best place for hến rice in Huế,” said Hà. “Did Tuấn take you to the big restaurant on the corner?”

“That’s where we ate. I tried all three dishes.”

Sương waved her hand as if shooing a fly. “Trương Định hến is too sweet. The best hến rice is on Cồn Hến.” She was referring to Hến Islet, which lies between the north and south shores of Huế’s Perfume River, not far from Đông Ba Market. Generations of families have made their living collecting the freshwater Corbicula clams from their alluvial beds around the island, cleaning the pea-sized molluscs and cooking them up.

Hà and Sương argued the merits of eating at each location, pitting the three or four restaurants on Trương Định Street against all the cơm hến vendors on the islet. While they usually switched to standard Vietnamese or tried to speak slowly for me, they now peppered their rapid speech with local Huế slang; I struggled to keep up with their argument.

I finished my coffee just as the rain was sputtering out. The light reflecting off the high ochre wall across from the restaurant gave the street a golden hue. Sương stood up and grabbed my hand, ending the discussion.

“You know how to eat cơm hến, huh? Come with me! Cho vui! (For fun!)” We were on her motorbike for all of three minutes. She pulled over in front of a row of women at a makeshift sidewalk market. Shoe sellers patrolled rows of footwear. Two women squatted amidst stacks of neatly folded men’s shirts. Several more sat on Lilliputian plastic stools, tending steaming food. Sương ducked under a huge green and white umbrella advertising Huế’s Huda beer. A woman in matching short brown tunic and loose trousers was ladling broth from a battered aluminum cauldron. She smiled when she saw Sương.

The woman gestured at me with her chin. “She can eat it?”

“Yes, she knows how.”

The woman raised her eyebrows. “Can she eat spicy food?”

I assured her in Vietnamese that I really did know how to eat hến and chilis. Her eyes creased with her broad smile. “Chị không sợ đau bụng hả? (You’re not afraid of stomach ache, huh?)”

She scooped cold rice into a bowl and topped it with the silvery clams, julienned banana flowers, bitter rau má leaves, coriander, basil and bean sprouts, and pork cracklings. She sprinkled some roasted peanuts and paper-thin chili slices on top, then placed it on a stool in front of me, followed by a bowl of pale broth.

She handed me a spoon and a saucer of fish sauce with garlic, chilis and green onion slivers. “Pour this on the rice. Mix it together.”

Through the fire and sweetness of the sauce, I could taste the musky clams, balanced with the bland, crunchy cracklings and chewy cold rice. Cơm hến is as much about texture as flavour and colour. Each bite had a different ratio of sweet and salty, crunchy and soft. The hot, mild broth offset the cool but searingly spicy clam rice.

The woman told me her husband went out every morning before dawn to “scrape clams”. I couldn’t imagine how he could bear immersing himself in the cold river water to collect the clams, their shells the size of my thumbnail, from the muddy riverbed when it was barely ten degrees Celsius and raining. “He’s a good swimmer,” she said. “He’s strong. He can stand the cold, but he always comes home with shrivelled hands.”

The rain pattered on the umbrella. We huddled beneath it and I tightened my jacket collar against the chill. I sipped the broth, feeling its warmth spreading from my stomach.

We ordered the bún hến next. Though my tongue was growing numb, I discovered another layer: shredded toasted rice crackers. Almost white, they blended in with the noodles, and I didn’t see them right away.

We kept eating and listening to the hến woman talk. She was proud of her family business, but hoped her daughter wouldn’t have to cook and sell hến for a living.

“You’ll get a stomach ache!” the woman in the next stall warned me, but I hadn’t so far, and I adored Huế’s trio of hến dishes. Crisp, clean flavours that danced on my tongue, and subtle undercurrents too. I added them to my list of addictive Huế specialties like the local beef noodle soup called bún bò Huế, and bánh bột lộc, the translucent shrimp dumplings that I couldn’t get enough of.

My time in Việt Nam was almost up (though I would later return to live in Huế for several years). I told Sương I would miss hến rice.

“You know,” she said in English, “the hến, it in the heart of Huế people. When we go away, we remember. We always wish we come back, eat cơm hến.”

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Chris Galvin divides her time between Canada and Việt Nam. Her essays and travel writing have appeared in many places online and in print, including Asian Cha, PRISM international, Vietnam Tourism Review, Descant, two Writers Abroad anthologies, and others. Chris is currently polishing a collection of essays about Việt Nam.