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The smell of success

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A long time ago, Vu Dai bananas were known as the kind forroyal consumption. Nearly a century ago, this village of Hoa Hau commune, LyNhan district, Ha Nam province, found fame again as its native, Nam Cao, wrotehis masterpiece “Chi Pheo”.

In recent years, the name Vu Dai is being heard of once morefor its braised fish, which is an everyday food item in the villagers’ meal.


No elder in Vu Dai knows when this dish first appeared. Onlya few remember that the village was very poor, as their paddies were scant. Butthere were a lot of ponds around that gave them fish. Perhaps that’s why theyinvented many dishes from it, including braised fish.

This food can stay fresh and delicious for weeks and so itcan be wrapped and sent as gift to friends and relatives far away. Little bylittle, the rich taste and flavor became known far and wide. Many come to VuDai to eat and learn how to braise the fish. And so, some Vu Dai families cameup with the idea of commercializing their modest treasure.

1981 was the year Vu Dai braised fish came to the market. Asthe demand grew, some established their own businesses. In 2009, a businessowner took his product to the Internet. “Now the whole country knows Vu Daibraised fish, and everybody loves it,” he said, full of confidence.

Vu Dai now has over 10 braised fish establishments. This isthe only fish-braising trade village of Vietnam. The place is bustling beforethe lunar New Year. Last month, some families earned 200 million VND for 800pots of fish. Vu Dai near lunar year-end is like a braised fish fair. At themoment, many families post braised fish ads on the internet with countrywidedelivery. Prices vary between 400,000 and 1,000,000 VND a pot, depending on thepot size.

 

Sophisticated artisans

The main character is black grass carp, 4 kg and above, cleanedof scales, guts, head and tail, cut in equal chunks, and washed in salt waterto remove skin mucous. Supporting roles include alpinia, ginger, coconut juice,lime juice and top-notch fish sauce.



The pot must be good quality terracotta, and the fish has tobe cooked in boiled water. “Without this step, the juices would be absorbed bythe pot, making the fish tasteless,” a fish braiser said, showing off hisexpertise.

Ingredients ready, the pot bottom is tiled with alpiniaslices. Then, some layers of fish chunks and the ingredients fill the pot.After 14 hours on a simmering fire, the fish is “well done."

“The process seems quite simple. But folks outside of Vu Daican hardly make the braised fish taste and smell this good,” according tofish-braiser Nguyen Ba Toan.

To prove his words, Mr. Toan revealed a few delicatesecrets: “It’s a meticulous process. The alpinia slices must have the exactthickness, so the fish will be well-cooked without getting parched underneath.Fish chunks with big bones must be at the bottom, the ones with small bones atthe top.”

There are many as experienced people in Vu Dai. They cantell the taste by the smell of fish, and the amount of water left in the pot bythe bubbling sound. Some even go as far as to pick firewood. “Longan wood isthe best because its fire is the hottest and most stable. Moreover, it removesthe terracotta smell of the pot,” fish-braiser Tran Thi Ngan said.n

By Khanh Le
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