Story time. I was about 9. Mom asked me to fry fish for dinner. I jumped at the opportunity to finally help her in the kitchen. "Oh boy! Oh boy! It's going to be so much fun!" I thought. It wasn't fun.
It was my first time at doing big girl stuff in the kitchen, and I was asked to fry a whole fish. What could possibly go wrong? I didn't mind the self lesson on water and hot oil, but when it came time to flip the whole fish, as you can imagined, it didn't go well for 9-year-old me. I flipped the fish, like mom instructed. But instead of keeping it whole and beautiful, it broke apart in multiple places. I desperately patched up the broken pieces before mom came back to the kitchen but the best I could do resembled road kill.
Mom came over to check on my progress. Unimpressed, she took the pan off the stove and slid the fish from the pan right into the trash. My 9-year-old heart sank straight to the floor. From then on, I stuck to watching my parents on the sidelines or helped them with small tasks in the kitchen. It was safer that way.
It was when I got married and started living on my own when I realized I didn't know how to cook any of the traditional Vietnamese dishes. I could wash dishes and prep vegetables, but I couldn't cook on my own for the life of me. I didn't know how to marinate meats. I didn't know how to taste-test soups. I had absolutely no understanding of seasonings and how they work.
I didn't know a lot of stuff and I was 25 years old. It was a sad realization. I panicked. To overcome this, I began rigorously practicing, meticulously taking down notes and logging them as I cook/burn various Vietnamese dishes in my tiny kitchen. My note-taking eventually turned into this blog.
The fried fish that didn't make it onto our dinner plates that sad Summer night of 1991 was Vietnamese Fried Fish with Lemongrass. Fried Fish with Lemongrass or Cá Chiên Sả is the simplest way to have fish in everyday Vietnamese home cooking. The marinade is a simple mixture of lemongrass, garlic, salt, pepper and a bit of ground turmeric for color. Red pepper flakes are added for a spicy version. Minced lemongrass and garlic in hot oil releases the most amazing aroma but you have to be careful as they burn quickly. To prevent scorching the lemongrass and garlic, fry the fish on low heat then crank it up towards the end to crisp up the skin. I also find that dusting it with corn starch helps achieve that crispy skin.
My son is now 9. I just might have him fry me up some whole fish for dinner. Even if it ends up looking like road kill, I will eat it happily. Cause that's what moms should do. Oh, the memories. Please excuse me as I cry into my pillow.
Vietnamese Fried Fish with Lemongrass (Ca Chien Xa)
1-1.5 lbs whole fish
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/3 cup chopped lemongrass
3 garlic cloves (minced)
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup corn starch
Clean the fish thoroughly and pat dry with paper towels. Cut a few diagonal slits into the fish on both sides.
In a small bowl, mix together salt, pepper, turmeric, lemongrass, garlic and red pepper flakes (optional).
Rub mixture onto the fish liberally, including in-between slits and in the cavity. Dust the fish with a light layer of corn starch.
Using a skillet with a lid, heat vegetable oil on medium-low. Add fish and cover the skillet with a lid. Fry for about 5 minutes on low, covered. The lid will trap the heat and help cook the fish through. Watch out for oil splatters. Cooking on low will prevent burning the garlic and lemongrass. Yes, fish won't be crispy with a covered lid, but we will make it crispy towards the end.
Flip the fish and cook the other side on low with a covered lid for another 5 minutes.
Now remove the lid and slightly turn up the heat to medium high. The high heat will crisp up the skin. Fry for 1-2 minutes. Flip and fry the other side for 1-2 minutes until crispy.
Transfer fish to a plate-lined with paper towels to remove excess oil. Serve with steamed rice, sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, fresh lettuce and an optional side of fish sauce dipping sauce.