I admit, I’ve never had the iconic dish at the famous restaurant near Hoan Kiem Lake. They have only this; charcoal-grilled catfish, marinated in turmeric and ginger, then bubbled in hot fat in a communal hotplate ready to be swirled with buoyant rice noodles, copious herbs, and sweet-tart nuoc cham… and massive amounts of fresh dill – a rarity in Southeast Asian cuisine.
Cá lăng chấm - Hemibagrus elongatus – dwarf catfish – DINNER
14 Hang Son began as a safe house for a family of insurgents to hide during the French Colonial period, but soon they started frying fish for their landlords, and five generations later… the street’s named after the dish (14 Chả cá the new address) and the establishment is a icon. The restaurant in recent years has fallen a bit out of favour owing to small portions and the owners being squeamish about doling out the proper fermented shrimp paste – but I wasn’t going to mess with that, anyway. It didn’t sound hard to make at home, and it isn’t.
Dwarf catfish is traditional, but I got away with striped bass (killed, gutted and cleaned only hours before it hit the pan – I LOVE MARKETS!). Hake would work too, or any firm white-fleshed fish that’s slightly sweet. Mắm ruốc - fermented shrimp paste is awesome, special stuff… but if it’s too funky for your taste, or if you can’t find it outside of Vietnam (possible), old-fashioned fish sauce will do. Galangal is fun, but ginger works too. And everything else is just a regular shopping trip for vegetables.
The recipe also requires you make your own nước chấm, which an indispensable thing to have in your repertoire – this sour-salty-sweet sauce is like having liquid Vietnamese gold to drizzle over your rice or to dip dumplings into. Very, very versatile.
And all that being said – one of the easiest weeknight dinners with the biggest potential for wowing people that I can think of.
Chả cá Lã Vọng (Hanoi Dill-Turmeric Fish), with Nước chấm sauce
adapted from Simpson Wong, of Wong Restaurant, NY
For the fish:
- 2 two-inch pieces fresh turmeric, peeled and chopped (see note)
- 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1 inch fresh peeled ginger, chopped
- 2 inches fresh peeled galangal, chopped (or substitute ginger)
- 1 and 1/2 pounds skinless sweet, white, firm fish fillets, cut in 2-inch squares (catfish or hake is best)
For the Nước chấm:
- 1/4 cup Vietnamese fish sauce (nuoc mam)
- 3 tablespoons minced garlic
- 2 teaspoons chile flakes
- 1/3 cup lime juice
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 4 ounces dried Vietnamese or Thai rice noodles (also called rice stick)
- 1 head Bibb lettuce, rinsed, trimmed, core removed, sliced thinly
- 1/4 cup canola oil
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 medium-large onion, sliced thin vertically
- 1 and 1/2 bunches scallions, trimmed and chopped
- 1 cup white bean sprouts
- 1 red pepper, sliced thin
- 1 bunch dill, stems discarded, fronds coarsely chopped
- 1/2 cup each cilantro leaves, mint leaves and Thai basil
- 1/4 cup chopped roasted salted peanuts
- 1/4 cup crisp fried shallots (sold in jars in Southeast Asian stores), or canned fried onions, OR can make your own: (finely dice half a white onion and toss with flour and salt, then fry in a 1/2 inch of neutral oil until crispy)