A secret fish dish

No 1, Vol.6, January – February 2016

Hanoi cuisine has long been famous for its richness and diversity. Each attractive dish is considered unique.. Referring to Hanoi cuisine means referring to famous dishes such as Hanoi noodles, Westlake shrimp cakes, steamed rolled rice pancakes and of course, Cha Ca La Vong (delicious fried chopped fish with vermicelli) named after a Chinese historical figure “Lã Võng” (Jiang Ziya). One of the most famous specialties in Hanoi, not only does the Cha Ca La Vong move expatriates, but it also goes down in the hearts of most visitors as a cultural beauty.
For the past 100 years, the Cha Ca La Vong has been famous through North and South Vietnam. It is said that, originally, the Cha Ca La Vong was only a folk dish prepared at House No. 14, Cha Ca Street, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi by the Doan family. This restaurant was established in order to hide our troops from the eyes of French. However, thanks to its moreish and specific aromatic flavor, the Cha Ca La Vong gradually became famous. Many people come here not only to enjoy this dish but also to listen to the history of ancient Hanoi.
The Cha Ca La Vong is “one of the 10 dishes you should try before death” according to a US news agency. It is more delicious when it is still steaming hot and each piece of fried fish is sprinkled with boiled liquid lard. The rich combination of different flavors-turmeric, dill and shrimp paste-make a strong impression on eaters, especially international visitors. It is the reason why, before leaving the restaurant, many of them praised: “we are extremely happy to visit this beautiful place and particularly enjoy this moreish dish.”
At first glance, it seems simple to cook; however, few people can do it. It is said that it is necessary for house wives to be scrupulous in processing this dish. First, they mix all ingredients for the marinade and combine them with a special kind of fish. Then, they cover and marinate the fish for at least 1 hour or overnight in the refrigerator so that the pieces of fish can absorb all of the spices. Normally, the fish used is Hemibagrus. However, this fish is very scarce, so it can be replaced by sheat-fish, especially Semilabeo notabilis. To create its typical flavor, making the dipping sauce is also an extremely important step. Cooks combine sugar, shrimp paste (mam tom), distilled wine, hot oil, chili and mix well. While constantly stirring, they will squeeze in the juice of half a lemon until it foams. The fish is fried on the table with turmeric and dill and served with cold vermicelli and peanuts. How cosy it is for all family members to gather together to enjoy a hot bowl of fried chopped fish in the piercing cold of winter days in Hanoi!
Although Hanoi is expanding with many high-rise buildings and supermarkets, the streets also have become bustling with many restaurants. Therefore, it is easy for everyone to find a place to enjoy any dish, including the Cha Ca La Vong. However, if you want to explore Hanoi’s culinary history as well as enjoy the perfect flavor of the Cha Ca La Vong, the restaurant at No. 14 is still the best choice for you. Hanoi now has lots of restaurants serving this dish, but no one of them can match this 100-year-old restaurant in terms of quality and flavor. However, I always wonder why after many years of business, everything in restaurant remains unchanged, especially the old wooden stairs? Is it true that for good luck in business, they don't want to change anything? Or maybe it is the way for the owner to think of the past as well as remind them of the traditional flavor of the Cha Ca La Vong.
It can be said that Hanoi cuisine is a crossroads of many different cuisines, but each dish here contains a distinction of Hanoians. Furthermore, Hanoians clearly know how to enjoy their cuisine and prove finical about their food. If you have an opportunity to travel to Hanoi, you should enjoy this unique and original specialty; surely, it will not let you down.n

Photo by Thanh Van, text by Le Van
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