A Cult Classic From Hanoi: Cha Ca La Vong

There is a restaurant in Hanoi that has a one-dish menu. Imagine that, a restaurant that serves just one thing! The restaurant is called Cha Ca La Vong 14 Cha Ca, Hoan Kiem; 84-4-3825-3929, which also happens to be the name of the classic fish dish that they serve. This tiny joint is still run by the descendants of the dish’s creator, and has been cooking Cha Ca La Vong for over 100 years.

Cha Ca Chilli and Mint
Cha Ca La Vong is a lovely combination of white fish (most commonly Vietnamese Snakehead fish) marinated with fresh turmeric, galangal, ginger, musky-scented  Vietnamese shrimp paste, spring onions, dill, rice noodles and a mixture of buttery lettuce, fresh herbs and crunchy peanuts. (photo via Chilli and Mint)

The story of Cha Ca La Vong goes like this:

In the mid-1800s, the Doan family began allowing Vietnamese soldiers, who were trying to oust the ruling French, to hide in their house. They served their guests their special fish dish, cha ca La Vong a simple fish dish created by the great-grandfather of the current restaurant owners.

To raise extra money to fund their rebel-hiding activities – and provide a cover for the house’s mysterious comings and goings – the family opened a restaurant serving o­nly cha ca La Vong.

The original recipe remains a Doan family secret, but Le Thi Bich Loc, o­ne of the current Doan family restaurateurs, told Vietnam News Agency the secret to cha ca La Vong was making it with quality ingredients.

To make the dish, Loc said fillets of catfish or snakehead fish are filleted and marinated for at least two hours with galangal, chili pepper, fish sauce and turmeric. The fillets are then grilled o­n a coal stove, and turned frequently, until each piece is a deep golden color.

The next stage of the cooking is done at the table, o­n a small pottery burner. The grilled fish is fried with dill, green o­nions and peanuts, a step that is believed to bring out more flavor.

The sizzling hot fish fillet mixture is then placed into a bowl with Vietnamese vermicelli, pickled spring o­nion bulbs and aromatic herbs. The finishing touch is a few drops of fermented shrimp paste. The restaurant o­nly buys shrimp paste from the central Thanh Hoa Province. This regional specialty has a light flavor and turns white when mixed with lemon juice.

via Vietnam Plus

Today, Cha Ca is a cult favourite in Northern Vietnam being served by street vendors and restaurants alike, but if you want a taste of the original you’ll have to look for the address  14 Cha Ca, Hoan Kiem, because many, many places now go by the name of Cha Ca La Vong!

If you live in Toronto, you can try the famous dish at Hanoi 3 Seasons 1135 Queen E, at Larchmount, 416-469-3010; 588 Gerrard E, at Broadview, 416-463-9940
This is their version:

If you’re like me and love trying your hand at cooking new things, you can easily make it at home. There are plenty of recipes to choose from online, but I wanted one that was authentic and homey, so I turned to Andrea Nguyen. I adapted her recipe from Into the Vietnamese Kitchen. I chose this particular recipe because it’s something that she cooks at home for her family and I like her recipes, a lot. I am an avid reader of her blog, Viet World Kitchen and I love that she has no formal culinary training, but a burning passion and a lot of experience about cooking and culture.

I prepared this dish two ways, the original Cha Ca and another way that I thought would be more kid friendly (and it was kid approved) as it’s basically fish and chips. I’ve included both recipes below.

Cha CaCha Ca

Loosely adapted from Andrea Nguyen’s, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen
Serves 4

Ingredients:
I know this make look like a LOT, but the preparation is very simple, it’s all about putting the components together. Trust me, it’s worth it!

Marinade for the fish:
2 lbs fish fillets (traditionally Hanoi snakehead fish is used, but you can substitute catfish, grouper, halibut, cod, black cod, snapper or any other firm white fish)
1/3 cup full fat yogurt
1 1/2 teaspoons ground turmeric
1 tablespoon ginger, grated
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 bird’s eye chilies, minced
1 1/2 tablespoons shrimp sauce
Healthy splash of fish sauce

Noodles and Salad:
1/2 package of dried round rice noodles
6 leaves of Boston lettuce
2 pickling cucumbers, halved and sliced
1/2 bunch cilantro
1/2 bunch mint
1/2 bunch Vietnamese balm, Vietnamese basil, fish mint and/or sorrel

Garnishes:
1/2 cup unsalted roasted peanuts
1/2 cup chopped fresh dill
3 green onions, white and green party, thinly sliced
1/4 cup sunflower or other neutral oil

Nuoc Cham Dipping Sauce
1/3 cup fresh lime juice
3 tablespoons sugar
2/3 cup warm water
6 tablespoons fish sauce
2 bird’s eye chilis, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced

Preparation:

For the fish: In a large glass bowl combine the yogurt, turmeric, ginger, garlic, chilies,  shrimp sauce, and fish sauce, mix together well. Take your fresh fish and rinse the filets clean, pat dry with paper towel and cut into 3 inch pieces that are at least 3/4 inch thick. Place the chunks of fish into the marinade and gently toss to coat. Cover the bowl with a glass plate or plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour or preferably overnight.

*Just before you are ready to cook the fish, remove it from the fridge and let it sit covered on the counter for 30 minutes.

Noodles and Salad: While the broiler is preheating prepare the noodles and the salad. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and cook the rice noodles until tender. Drain and rinse with cold water. Set aside. In a large salad bowl, add torn Boston lettuce leaves, sliced cucumber, and herbs (cilantro, mint, Vietnamese balm, Vietnamese basil, fish mint and/or sorrel) by tearing them into bite-sized pieces. Set aside.

Nuoc Cham Dipping Sauce: This sauce makes 1 1/2 cups, so I suggest mixing it in a glass mason jar so that the leftover sauce can be stored in the refrigerator for a later use. To a mason jar or other glass container or bowl, add the lime juice, sugar, warm water, fish sauce, sliced bird’s eye chilis, and minced garlic. Pop on the top and shake to combine or if using a bowl whisk or stir. Set aside.

Cooking the fish: Now that everything is ready to plate you can begin cooking the fish. Here you have a choice, you can do one of three things:
1. Prepare a charcoal fire (oil the grill grates, so the fish does not stick)
2. Use a stove top grill pan (oil the grill pan, so the fish does not stick)
3. Arrange fish on an aluminum foil lined baking sheet and broil in the oven

Grill or broil the fish long enough so that it sizzles and browns a little on both sides.
Note: You will be finishing the fish off in hot oil.

In a large saute pan, heat the 1/4 cup of oil in a pan, when bubbling hot add the fish and top with scallions and dill. Cook the fish in the oil until cooked through and golden brown.

Plating: It’s time to eat! I like serving this in bowls, so find four and add a generous serving of rice noodles to each bowl, and season with a little of nuac cham dipping sauce.
Dress the salad and herbs with a generous splash of nuac cham dipping sauce and massage together before adding on top of the rice noodles. Finally, add the sizzling fish along with the green onion and dill. Top with the roasted peanuts and serve.

Bring the nuac cham dipping sauce to the table so that everyone can drizzle a little atop their bowls to taste.

Cha Ca Fish and ChipsCha Ca: Fish and Chips

*Use the same ingredients as the recipe above, but instead of grilling or broiling the marinated fish, you will batter and fry it.

Fish and Chip Batter:
1 tablespoon milk
1/2 cup water
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
pinch of salt
about 1/2 cup of flour (see note in preparation)
sunflower oil or other neutral oil for frying

Preparation:

For The Batter: In a large bowl mix together the milk, water, baking soda and salt. Begin adding flour 1 tablespoon at a time until and whisking until combined until the batter become the right consistency.

Note: add enough flour to combine and reach a consistency of a creamy pancake batter – not too clumpy and not too runny.

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, start dipping the pieces of fish into the batter, covering to coat, it will be quite thick. Begin placing a few pieces of fish at a time into the hot oil and fry until cooked through and golden brown on both sides, about 4-5 minutes or longer depending on the type and thickness of the fish.

Note: If the fish is browning too quickly, turn the heat down to medium.

Once the fish is cooked through and golden, place on to a paper towel lined plate to soak up some of the oil, season with salt and continue frying the rest of the fish.

Once all the fish is fried, prepare the rest of the meal as noted in the first recipe, I chose to omit the chilies from the nuoc cham so it wasn’t too spicy for kids. This batter is great for regular fish and chips and too!

xx

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