Turmeric-stained chả cá Hà Nội is a superb and iconic dish from Vietnam’s capital. Finding supermarket ingredients to make this treat required creativity, because it typically features pieces of freshwater fish fillet marinated in a creamy, umami-laden mixture of turmeric, galangal (an edgy cousin of ginger and turmeric), fermented shrimp sauce (mắm tôm, a toothpaste-textured, mauve-colored umami bomb), and mẻ (a mash of fermented cooked rice).
The fish is cooked on a brazier, topped with green onion and dill, and then finished with a pour of hot oil to sear the aromatics. It’s served with the usual suspects (noodles, lettuce, and herbs) along with roasted peanuts and crumbled toasted rice crackers, which act like croutons to add richness and crunch. A tangy, savory sauce made with shrimp and fish sauces dresses all the components for a stunning one-dish meal.
Many people point to the famous version from Chả Cá Lã Vọng restaurant in Hanoi, but you can create a fabulous rendition from regular grocery store items. Buy catfish or tilapia fillets (thick, big ones work best), swap anchovy paste for shrimp sauce, use ginger in lieu of galangal, sub sour cream for fermented cooked rice, and offer small rice cracker rounds or tortilla chips instead of larger rice crackers. Broiling the fish is much easier than squatting and fanning a brazier. With those work-arounds, there’s little flavor loss as you enjoy major Viet cooking gains.
Vietnamese Food Any Day
by Andrea Nguyen
Pat the fish dry with paper towels. Halve each fillet lengthwise (let the backbone indentation be your guide) and then cut each fillet half into “fish fingers” roughly 4 inches long and 1 inch wide. To obtain long pieces, you may have to cut the fish at an angle, creating trapezoid-shaped pieces. Set aside.
In a large bowl, combine the turmeric, ginger, anchovy paste, fish sauce, sour cream, and 2 tablespoons canola oil. Add the fish and use your hands or a silicone spatula to coat the pieces evenly. Cover and set aside to marinate while you ready the other components. Set the dill, green onions, and remaining 1/4 cup canola oil near the stove.
To make the dipping sauce In a small bowl, whisk together the anchovy paste, sugar, and lime juice, which will give you a pale purple mixture. Add the fish sauce and water and taste; if the sauce is a little bitter or sharp, add the vinegar, 1 teaspoon at a time. Then, add the chiles, stir, and set aside.
Position an oven rack about 4 inches from the broiler’s heat source and preheat the broiler for 20 minutes. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and set a rack inside.
To prep the accompaniments In a pot of unsalted water, boil the noodles until chewy-tender; the cooking time depends on the noodle and brand. Drain, rinse with cool water, and drain well for about 5 minutes. For easy serving, arrange the noodles as 2-to 3-inch nests on two plates or in low bowls. Place the noodles, lettuce, herbs, peanuts, dipping sauce, and rice crackers at the table. For each diner, set out a cereal bowl or small soup bowl, chopsticks (or a fork), and a spoon.
Arrange the fish pieces on the prepared rack, laying them flat, like a jigsaw puzzle. Broil for about 8 minutes, until the fish is sizzling and a little brown; check after 5 minutes and rotate the pan, if needed. Using chopsticks, tongs, or an offset spatula, delicately loosen and turn the fish over, then broil for 5 to 8 minutes more, until tinged brown on the second side. Let cool for 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer the fish to one or two serving plates and blanket with the dill and green onions.
In a small saucepan, heat the remaining 1/4 cup canola oil until faint wisps of smoke start rising. Pour the hot oil over the green onions and dill to sear and wilt them. Using two spoons, gently combine, and then place the fish on the table.
When ready to eat, diners should put some of each component in an individual bowl, tearing the lettuce and herbs into bite-size pieces and breaking up the rice crackers. Dress with a small drizzle of sauce (wield chopsticks and spoon to mix) and gobble it up. Repeat until everything is gone.
Anchovy paste is usually shelved near the canned seafood. (If you have mam tôm fermented shrimp sauce, substitute an equal amount for the paste.) If the anchovy paste–based sauce sounds too bizarre, make a batch of Nuoc Cham Dipping Sauce instead.
Knobby galangal is sometimes carried at mainstream markets such as Whole Foods.
No large rack? Broil the fish on the foil; if liquid accumulates, make a spout in one corner of the foil, pour off the liquid, and finish broiling.
For advance prep, marinate the fish, make the sauce, boil the noodles, and wash the lettuce and herbs 1 day ahead and store, covered, in the refrigerator. To soften and refresh the noodles, sprinkle with water and microwave on high for 60 to 90 seconds.
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Reprinted with permission from Vietnamese Food Any Day: Simple Recipes for True, Fresh Flavors by Andrea Nguyen, copyright © 2019. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
Andrea Nguyen is an author, freelance writer and cooking teacher. She is the author of several cookbooks, including Into the Vietnamese Kitchen (a finalist for a James Beard award for Best Asian Cookbook and winner of two IACP award nominations), Asian Dumplings and Asian Tofu. Her writing has appeared in publications such as the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, Bon Appetit and Saveur, where she serves a contributing editor.