If I'm not watching re-runs of Friends over and over again, I'm most likely watching food travel shows, such as No Reservations and Bizarre Foods. It was on these shows that I first heard of Chả Cá Lã Vọng, introduced by their respective TV hosts, Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern. That's right. I learned of this iconic Hanoi dish from two white men. This dish now appears in every Vietnam guide books and food shows, making famous a particular restaurant in Hanoi that has this and only this dish on their menu, Chả Cá Lã Vọng (yep, same name as the dish), located at 14 Pho Cha Ca, Hanoi, Vietnam.
Chả Cá Lã Vọng is Hanoi's famous fried fish with tumeric and dill. This dish is also known as Chả Cá Hà Nội, Chả Cá Thăng Long, or or just Chả Cá for short. When I think of Vietnamese cuisine, turmeric and dill do not come to mind. In fact, I think this is only Vietnamese dish that utilizes dill. I rarely eat dill. They are usually a garnish on my deviled eggs. I wouldn't think eating dill by the handful would be very appetizing, but I was pleasantly surprised with the use of dill (and turmeric) in this dish.
To prepare Chả Cá Lã Vọng, snakehead fish is filleted, cut into bite-sizes pieces, then marinated with turmeric, garlic, shallots, sugar and fish sauce. It's grilled or baked beforehand but fried at table side in a sizzling cast iron skillet for a crispy outer crust. Loads of fresh dill is served with the fish, along with other assorted vegetables and Vietnamese herbs. The dill is quickly seared in the same sizzling hot skillet. Sizzling fried fish and semi-wilted dill are placed on a bed of rice noodles, then eaten together with chopped peanuts, sesame rice crackers and the infamous sauce, Mắm Nêm, a pungent fermented anchovy sauce. Mắm Nêm is an acquired taste. It's smells like death but tastes delicious and is an important component to the authenticity of the dish. Some restaurants do offer a mild alternative to Mắm Nêm for the weaklings.
Eating Chả Cá Lã Vọng is not only tasty but also a lot of fun because it involves tabletop cooking and do-it-yourself assembly. The dish and all of its accompaniment are complex in flavor and texture yet they come together harmoniously. It's a must-try for all Vietnamese cuisine enthusiast.
For my recipe below, I like to coat the outside of the fish with a bit of corn starch then deep fry. This way it cooks up faster and more evenly. The high heat also brings out the vibrant yellow turmeric color. The fillets are then pan-fried at table-side, making the crust even crispier right before eating, but it's mostly for show since it's already cooked and crispy.
Other recipes call for the use of galangal in the fish marinade. Galangal looks a lot like ginger but it's lighter in color and woodier in texture. It has a citrusy note with a sharp flavor. It's common in Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian cooking and not so much Vietnamese. I couldn't find galangal so I omitted it entirely and the dish stil came out great. Obviously, it wasn't too essential.
When preparing the Mắm Nêm sauce, do not use the sauce straight out of the bottle, even the ones labeled ready to use, Mắm Nêm Pha Sẵn. It's too salty. I prep mine with a little bit of fried lemon grass, crushed pineapples and a bit of sugar. These simple additions make the sauce more platable and less frightening.
Hanoi Fried Fish with Turmeric and Dill Recipe (Chả Cá Lã Vọng)
- 2 lbs firm white fish fillets (Traditionally, snakehead is used but you can use Tilapia or Catfish)
- 1 tablespoon turmeric powder
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 tablespoon minced shallots
- 1/3 cup fish sauce
- 3 tablespoons granulated white sugar
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil plus more for deep frying
- 1/3 cup corn starch
Mắm Nêm Sauce
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon minced lemon grass
- 8 oz finely chopped or crushed pineapple
- Half a bottle of Mắm Nêm, Vietnamese fermented anchovy sauce (strain to remove solids)
- 2 tablespoons granulated white sugar
- 1 Thai chili peppers sliced thinly (optional)
- 1 bunch fresh dill
- 1 bunch green onions (about 5-8 sprigs, cut into 2 inch segments)
- Rice vermicelli (cook per package instructions)
- Chopped peanuts
- Sesame rice paper (lightly wet with paper and microwave or grill until puffy)
- Cut the fillets into 1-1/2 inch pieces. Marinate with turmeric powder, garlic, shallots, fish sauce, sugar and 3 tablespoons vegetable oil for at least one hour or overnight in fridge.
- Fill small pot with vegetable oil (add just enough to cover fish) and heat on high. Coat fillet with corn starch, dust off excess and deep fry for 2-3 minutes. Remove from oil and transfer fillet to a plate lined with paper towels to absorb excess oil.
- Prepare the Mắm Nêm sauce. In a small sauce pan, heat up vegetable oil on high. Saute lemon grass until fragrant. Add pineapple and sautee until completely broken down and wilted. Add bottled Mắm Nêm and sugar. Mix well. Add chili peppers for heat (optional).
- To serve, prepare a pan or cast iron skillet with a bit of vegetable oil on the bottom. Traditionally, lots of vegetable oil is used in the pan when serving table side but use less oil if preferred. Heat on high. Pan fry the precooked fish. Add a bit of dill and green onions to the oil for a quick sear. Prepare a bowl of rice noodles. Transfer cooked fish and dill to the noodles. Add chopped peanuts, crumbled sesame rice crackers, and a ladle of Mắm Nêm.