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Friday, May 8, 2015

Chả Cá Lã Vọng - Dill and Turmeric Fish Noodles

On our first trip together to Vietnam in 2005, my husband and I took a private tour to learn about our birth country and enjoy the sights and sounds and food from different regions. We started in the south from Saigon and worked our way up north to Ha Long Bay. While in the northern city of Hanoi, we were recommended Hanoi's iconic dish Chả Cá Lã Vọng by our tour guigde. This original Chả Cá Lã Vọng house is located in Chả Cá Street and has remained in business for five generations. That's over a hundred years and is legendary despite the fact that they only serve one dish –Chả Cá!. Chả Cá means “grilled fish” and Lã Vọng refers to the ancient Chinese poet and revolutionist.

There are many places serving this dish, but to come back to its place of origin in it's own ambience certainly evokes wondrous emotions. I remembered we climbed the extremely narrow and steep rickety staircase to reach an antiquated small dining room on the second floor of the house. The room is small but packed with communal tables, tourists and locals alike. We could hear everyone's conversation because it's that close.  The wonderful unique aroma of turmeric, dill, fresh fish, and charcoal wafted through the entire upstairs. It didn't matter if you sweated your ways trying to get to this place under the sultry sun because the aroma will take it all away.

This famous Hanoi dish made with only one type of fish: chunks of fresh fish called a langfish  or hemibagrus (cá lăng) because it has few bones and tasty white meat.  The fish is smothered in an array of spices including fermented cold rice, turmeric, and galangal. Dills and spring onions are grilled on a small stove at your table along with the fillets of langfish until they are crispy and golden brown. This is then served with noodle, roasted peanuts, herbs, and shrimp sauce or fish sauce. All of these ingredients blend into a unique exquisite flavor.

Over all, I think it's worth the experience if you're heading to Hanoi; it's been featured as "one of the 1,001 dishes to eat before you die".  It's been many years and both my husband and I still can't forget the wonderful aroma, the bustling crowd and how pricey  it was for a local delicacy; it costs $8 usd per person for  4 measly pieces of fish per person.  Next to our table was a group of local students and who were ordering multiple rounds making us think that it might be an all-you can-eat until the bill came.  We couldn't believe these high schoolers would have so much money to order multiple rounds and feeling that we were mistreated as tourists.

Chả Cá Lã Vọng is a dish to be desired but you don't need a plane ticket to traverse the Pacific to savour it.  You can prepare and enjoy from scratch in your comfy kitchen now that I am about to share with you my version of this Chả Cá Lã Vọng's recipe.  It is delicious and aromatic healthy.   The complexity of flavors will surely leave you craving for more.  
RECIPE: Chả Cá Lã Vọng


for the fish
3-4 lbs Talapia (catfish, basa, cod can be used)
2 tablespoons Fish Sauce
2 teaspoons Garlic Powder
2 teaspoons Onion Powder
3 piece fresh Galanga (củ riềng), about 1 1/2-in block
1 fresh Turmeric (củ nghệ), about 1 1/2-in block
2 tablespoons cooking Oil

for dipping shrimp sauce
2 tablespoons Shrimp Sauce 
1 piece Pineapple, finely chopped
1 tablespoon, finely chopped Lemongrass
1 tablespoon, finely chopped Garlic
1 tablespoon Shallot, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon Ginger, finely chopped
1/2 cup coco Rico soda
1 tablespoon Sugar
1/2 Lime, juiced

for the dipping fish sauce
1/4 cup Fish Sauce
1/4 cup Water
3 tablespoons Sugar
2 tablespoons Lime Juice
1 tablespoon finely chopped Garlic
Chili Garlic Sauce or Fresh Red Chili Pepper, finely chopped 


a bunch of  Spring Onions, cut into 2-inch segments
2 bunches of Dill, cut into 2-inch segments
Sweet Purple or White Onion, cut into wedges
Assorted Vietnamese herbs, optional
1 bag Rice Vermicelli 
Roasted Peanuts, slightly crushed

Preparing Fish

Cut fish into big chunks about 2 in x 1 in. Set aside.

I prefer fresh galangal and turmeric to ground but you can also use the ground if fresh ones are not available at your local market.  Left over fresh galangal and turmeric can be stored in the freezer for later use.

Put on a pair of gloves or plastic bags to avoid turmeric stains.  Peel off the skins of galangal and turmeric. Since galangal is dense and hard, cut galangal into thin slices. Put the fresh turmeric, and galangal in a mortar and pound with a pestle into a smooth paste.  Wash mortar and pestle immediately to prevent staining.

Add fish sauce, oil, garlic and onion powder and mix well.

Transfer paste mixture into the fish bowl and toss until each piece of fish is well coated in the paste. Set aside to marinate for about 30 minutes.

Cooking Noodle

While bringing a pot of water to a boil, soak the noodle in a large bowl of water. When the water reach the boiling point, drain the noodle, then add noodle and a pinch of salt to the pot. Cook for about 5 minutes at medium heat until the noodle until softened. Remember to stir the noodle occasionally to avoid noodle sticking to the bottom of the pot.  Drain, refresh under running cold water. Drain and set aside.
Preparing Shrimp Sauce

At the restaurant, they served pure fermented shrimp paste mixed with garlic, chili pepper, lime juice, and sugar.  The pure shrimp sauce itself  has a thick consistency and it's quite pungent.  I like to cook and dilute the sauce with variety of ingredients to enhance the flavor and also to reduce the strong aroma of the sauce.

In a sauce pan, bring a tablespoon of oil on medium heat. Once it's hot, add lemongrass, ginger, shallot, and garlic.

Saute until they start to turn slightly brown. Add pineapple, shrimp sauce, coco Rico soda and sugar. Mix it well.

Once the sauce is blended well and start to boil, remove from heat. Add lime juice. Transfer the sauce to a serving bowl. Add garlic chili sauce for spicy flavor. Set aside.
Preparing Fish Sauce

This Chả Cá Lã Vọng goes well with the shrimp sauce. Fish sauce is another option if shrimp sauce is too advance for you. Combine all the ingredients and mix well. Set aside.

Place noodles, accompaniments and turmeric flavored fish to the table for everyone to cook and assemble their own dish.

Heat the oil in a frying pan over a medium-high heat. I used the electric griddle. Add the marinated fish and sweet onion and fry until crisp, golden brown on both sides. Add the dill, and spring onion. Cook for a few more seconds until wilted. I was intrigued with the large amount of dills and spring onions in the dish, but it makes sense once I had the first bite.

Place grilled fish, dill, spring onion, and sweet onion on a bed of noodle, herbs, and garnish with peanuts. Drizzle your favorite sauce over and enjoy. I love putting a cup of pool water over this dish.wink wink 

Another way is to simply roll everything in a wet rice-paper into a cylinder then dip it  into the sauce.  

It's fun to serve this dish for a large get-together. So fire up the grill, throw in some dill and just chill in Lã Vọng style. Okay, enough rhyming.

Eat well.  Stay hungry!

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