A fine kettle of fish

No 3, Vol.7, June - July 2015

A fish-stewing village in Ha Nam Province.
Photo: Nguyen Huu Thanh

A fish-cooking pot
Photo: Huy Thong

Approaching Dai Hoang Village, Hoa Hau Commune, Ly Nhan District of Ha Nam Province, one can smell ginger, alpinia, fish sauce, and even the sour touch of lime juice in the smoke coming out of houses alongside the road.
At year’s end, fire is burning in the home of almost every family in Dai Hoang. The villagers used to cook fish for their meals and send their children to study elsewhere. Thus, fame of the fish’s flavour spread. Now, people pour into the village not only to taste, but also to buy the simmered fish pots that take a lot of labour.
Dai Hoang simmered fish is ordered from abroad, too. Sometimes transportation fees exceed the price of the fish. VND500,000 to VND1 million or even VND2 million for a pot sounds expensive. But it’s fair, considering how meticulous the preparation is.
Mr Tran Van Hoan, owner of the simmered fish establishment Ngoc Hoan, was absorbed in preparing the ingredients for a new batch. Carefully lining a pot bottom with thin slices of alpinia, he said, ‘Every detail is important. The thickness of these slices must be just right, so that the fish will have consistent taste from top to bottom. Fish chunks with bigger bones must be placed beneath those with smaller bones.’ Having arranged the fish, he covered it with a layer of alpinia, added squashed ginger, fish sauce, caramel and a bit of lime juice that would soften the smell and make the fish firm, not crumbly.
Pointing at dozens of big and small pots merrily bubbling on small fire, Mr Hoan frowned in the smoke, ‘Cooking alone takes more than 10 hours. There must be somebody there all the time to take care of the fire, no matter what business calls,’ he said.
Experienced villagers can tell by the smell how salty the fish is, or how much water remains in the pot by the bubbling sound. The taste has to be measured carefully. Customers from central Vietnam like it hotter. Southerners like it sweeter. If it is to be sent to Hanoi or Nam Dinh, less salt is added.
Photos: Huy Thong

Dai Hoang Village has about a dozen such establishments. They are busy day and night, all year round, especially during the New Year, from about the tenth of twelfth month till the end of the first lunar month. One shop owner estimates his shop normally makes about 300 pots a day, but during that period they make 700-800 pots a day. Minus all expenses, they make about VND200 millions a year.n

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