My experiences with Vietnamese cuisine had always involved only 2 items:
- Pho (noodle in beef soup); and
- Bun (rice vermicelli poured with nuoc mam or Vietnamese fish sauce) with accompanying spring rolls, sausages, etc.
So when my friends suggested that we visit Hanoi for a couple days, I packed my appetite and flew 2 hours to the capital for the real deal.
We stayed at the Hanoi Old Quarter Hotel, which, as the name suggests, is located within Hanoi’s Old Quarter. The district is pretty much considered downtown and is about 15 minutes walk from Lake Hoan Kiem (Ngoc Son Temple) and the 108 year-old Metropole Hotel in the French Quarter.
The Old Quarter is where you’ll find several large markets, plenty of little hole-in-wall restaurants and improvised “area” with plastic stools, plastic tables or just a floor mat so that patrons can sit and dine by the road side. Dust and carbon monoxide included.
Anyway, I’ll save the details for later posts. Dinner for the first night was recommended to us by our trusty “Lonely Planet Hanoi & Halong Bay Encounter” guide and it was a decent restaurant (Hanoi standard) called Cha Ca Trang Long (see photos).
We sat down and before we even had a chance to worry about how to order food, the staff kindly placed a stove on our table and a frying pan with turmeric-marinated fish within (pictured). At first, we thought that was kind of rude, but then we realized that’s a pretty smart thing to do. The Cha Ca or “Hanoi Fried Fish with Dill” is their signature dish, which is why we’re there and since we don’t speak Vietnamese, that probably saved everyone the trouble of playing charade.
The Cha Ca was fried in peanut oil and the aroma was terrific. Turmeric, like other exotic spices are often used in Thai, Indian and Middle Eastern dishes and is mildly bitter (because it is derived from the root of a tropical plant related to ginger), a bit peppery and has a yellow dye to it. Here’s an excerpt from About.com:
“Turmeric is botanically known as Curcuma longa, derived from the old Arabic name for the kurkum plant we know better as saffron. Yet this spice is a member of the ginger family and unrelated to saffron. Like ginger, it is the root of the turmeric plant that is used as a spice, usually in a dried form.
However, in some areas of the Far East, the fresh turmeric root is used and stored much like ginger. You might be able to find fresh turmeric in specialty Asian markets in the US.
The root is generally peeled to expose its bright yellow flesh, then boiled, dried, and ground into a powder. Turmeric gives ball-park yellow mustard its bright color, is a prime ingredient in Worcestershire sauce, and is also used to color other foods such as butter, cheese, and fruit drinks. It is a favorite in Middle East and Asian foods and spice blends such as curry.”
The staff then gave each of us a plate of rice vermicelli noodle, with shared condiments such as roasted peanuts, chili, spring onions (scallions), mint / lime leaves, lime wedges, nuoc mam (or Vietnamese fish sauce) and diluted shrimp sauce (pictured below).
Fry and stir with dill and spring onions (scallions) and …
Place some rice vermicelli in your bowl, topped with your preferred condiments (i.e. onion, mint / lime leaves, etc.) and sauces (nuoc cham, diluted shrimp sauce and/or lime juice). Then put a piece or 2 of the fish, together with the cooked dill and scallion in your bowl, mix it a little bit and pig out.
The turmeric itself has very mild flavoring, but mixed with dill and scallion, the spices actually becomes slightly stronger. Since the vermicelli noodle is tasteless and is usually served cold, it makes an interesting feeling inside your mouth as you chew on everything you’ve just placed in your bowl; hot, cold, bland, flavorful all in a mouthful. The onions, mint / lime leaves, chili and especially the grayish / purple shrimp sauce (diluted of course, otherwise it’d be too salty) adds to the palette and sends a mixture of signals to my taste buds … I know this sounds like textbook food critique, but its quite true!
And finally, a meal in Vietnam would not be complete without …
If you want to know more about Cha Ca, here’s an excerpt I found from Vietnamese-Recipes (dot) com:
“The north of Vietnam is well known for its use of pungent herbs, so much so that a dish of the ever-popular noodles can be served plain, dressed only with coriander and basil. There are many herbs that are indigenous to this northern region and virtually impossible to find outside Vietnam, but one herb that is easily available and used in many northern-style fish dishes is dill. In this classic dish from Hanoi, Cha Ca Hanoi, the dill is just as important as the fish and they complement each other beautifully. A simple accompaniment of plain rice or noodles is all that is needed to make an impressive meal.
Cha Ca Street – There is a street in Hanoi called Cha Ca Street, where all the restaurants specialize in this dish. The most famous is Cha Ca La Vong, a tiny restaurant that has been owned by the same family for generations and which claims to have first popularized Cha Ca. This recipe usually uses the local Red River fish, Carp and Catfish, and is served with piquant dipping sauces such as Mam Tong Tom made with pineapple and dried shrimp, or Nuoc Cham.”
Ingredients from Vietnamese-Recipes (dot) com for the Cha Ca:
- 75g of rice flour
- 7.5ml of ground turmeric
- 500g of white fish fillets, such as Cod skinned and cut into bite-size chunks
- 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil, for deep-frying
- 1 large bunch of fresh dill
- 15ml of groundnut (peanut) oil
- 30ml of roasted peanuts
- 4 spring onions (scallions), cut into bite-size pieces
- 1 small bunch of fresh basil, stalks removed, leaves chopped
- 1 small bunch of fresh coriander (cilantro), stalks removed
- 1 Lime, cut into quarters, Nuoc Cham sauce, to serve
- Mix the flour with the turmeric and toss the fish chunks in it until well coated. Heat the oil in a wok or heavy pan and cook the fish in batches until crisp and golden
- Drain on kitchen paper
- Scatter some of the dill fronds on a serving dish, arrange the fish on top and keep warm
- Chop some of the remaining dill fronds and set aside for garnishing
- Heat the groundnut oil in a small pan or wok. Stir in the peanuts and cook for 1 minute
- Add the spring onions, the remaining dill fronds, basil and coriander
- Stir fry for no more than 30 seconds, then spoon the herbs and peanuts over the fish. Garnish with the chopped dill and serve with lime wedges and nuoc cham to drizzle over the top
Siu Yeh Rating: 8/10
Cha Ca Trang Long
31 Duong Thanh
Tel: +824 5115
Filed under: Asia, Vietnam | Tagged: Basil, Cha Ca, Cha Ca Hanoi, Cha Ca Trang Long, Cod Fish, Coriander, Culture, Deep Fry, Dill, Duong Thanh, Fish Sauce, Ground Turmeric, Hanoi, Hanoi Fried Fish with Dill Recipe, Herb, Herbs, Lake Hoan Kiem, Lime, Metropole Hotel, Ngoc Son Temple, Noodle, Nuoc Cham Sauce, Old Quarter, Peanut Oil, Restaurant, Restaurant Review, Review, Scallions, Shrimp Sauce, Spring Onions, Travel, Vegetable Oil, Vermicelli, Vietnam, White Fish Fillets |