In the sweltering streets of Hanoi, life happens in the instant. In an instant people zip by on scooters going so quickly, laden with impossibly large items, that you suspend disbelief and simply watch. I once saw a whole family—the father navigating, the mother seated primly behind him holding their daughter in her arms, and behind the three of them, a stack of cages stuffed with live chickens piled three cages high.
In an instant you can find a bowl of noodles more delicious than most; the people preparing the noodles have been making the same food for their whole lives, maybe generations, and the precision that goes into each bowl shows. A seemingly slapdash array of raw and cooked ingredients in the bowl balances perfectly the tension between savory, sweet, and sour.
I ate many large bowls of pho, laden with twice the offal that the bowls offered because my traveling companion at the time was squeamish and slipped everything offal that she didn't want to eat in her bowls of pho, into mine. In went a succulent section of omasum tripe! Following that, a gelatinous piece of tendon. We never sought respite from the pho, but midway in the trip we added another famed noodle dish, Chả Cá, to our repertoire of quick and delicious meals to slurp down.
The restaurant Chả Cá La Vong in Hanoi makes the definitive bowl, but everywhere we went in Hanoi, there were noodle joints serving their unique version of the dish. The major elements of the dish were as follows: a white-fleshed fish like catfish or snakehead seasoned with turmeric, seared, with plenty of dill and green onions on top; a bed of rice noodles; roasted peanuts; and an assortment of herbaceous greens.
The greens varied, but there was usually Thai basil, mint, red perilla (a member of the shiso family), and Vietnamese balm (reminiscent of lemongrass, in herb form). Some kind of lettuce accompanied the noodles. Once the fish was seared, everything would be mixed with the noodles—the peanuts, a sauce containing lime, shrimp paste and fish sauce, and the assortment of herbs and vegetables. It was this unique combining of cooked and raw ingredients, which appeared over and over again in other Vietnamese dishes, that left such an indelible impression.
Upon my return to the states I learned that the fish for Chả Cá is marinated in turmeric, galangal, shrimp paste, and a fermented rice mash that is difficult to find outside of the country. Sour cream or buttermilk are handy replacements for the rice mash; furthermore, though white-fleshed fish are the norm, I've often replaced the fish with salmon as a nod to the dill that garnishes the fish. Unlike the best pho broths, which should taste more like beef than beef fat, Chả Cá contains a fair amount of grease from the sizzling oil and juices that pool in the bottom of the pan of fish, not to mention from the addition of the oily shrimp paste. The oil lubricates the rice noodles, making them slick, flavorful, and incredibly addictive.
It's an ideal dish to try in the summertime: With the abundance of herbs available in gardens and markets during the season, the dish can take on as many new flavors as you're willing to try. Finally, leftover Chả Cá, if there is such a thing, makes for an unbeatable filling for rice rolls.
- 12 ounces fish fillets, either catfish or salmon, or another fish to your liking
- Dill and green onion, roughly chopped
- A few tablespoons of oil for frying
- White rice noodles, about 4 bunches suitable for 4 servings
- For the marinade
- Buttermilk to cover the fish
- 1 tablespoon ground turmeric
- 3 tablespoons freshly grated galangal or ginger juice
- 2 tablespoons shrimp paste
- To garnish
- Fish sauce and shrimp sauce, to taste
- Lime juice, to taste
- Lettuce, preferably romaine or butterhead
- An assortment of herbs, such as Thai basil, mint, and perilla
- Roasted peanuts
Place the fish in the marinade and mix well to coat. Keep it in the refrigerator for at least a few hours, preferably up to a day.
Cook the rice noodles in boiling water, according to the instructions on the packet. Drain, rinse, and divide among four wide bowls for serving.
Place the peanuts and the assortment of herbs and lettuce into the bowls as well. Have your condiments—the fish sauce, shrimp paste, and lime—ready on the side.
Take the fish out the marinade and pat both sides dry. Heat a nonstick or well-seasoned skillet over medium heat. Add the oil to the pan and pan-fry the fish on both sides, about two minutes per side depending on the thickness of your fillets, turning carefully so as not to break up the meat. Take the fillets out and place them into your noodle bowls.
Using the oil and juices in the pan, lightly fry the green onions and dill and pour over the fish in the noodle platters. Serve immediately, having each guest mix the noodles to his or her liking with the assortment of condiments and herbs.