Archive for the ‘Vietnam’ Category

Hanoi Tasty Fish Fry: Cha Ca

Monday, March 14th, 2005


Vietnamese food is really tasty, even the crap they feed to tourists on your all-inclusive trip thingies. Our Hanoi favorite was a local specialty called cha ca, so good we had to have it twice even though we were only there for about four days. Cha ca is a DIY dining experience consisting of cold noodles, chopped herbs, fish sauce, and chopped roasted peanuts, topped with an oily yellow fry-up of fish. You eat cha ca in a restaurant called “Cha Ca” on a street in the old city called “Cha Ca.” There are no menus — you climb a tiny pirate-shippy stair case to a slanted poop-decklike second floor, and sit in a folding chair. Then you order aTiger beer, and a server comes and brings you bowls of noodles and seasonings, then a pan of fish in oil over a wooden bucket of charcoal. They dump a bowl of dill and some scallions into the pan of fish, and emphatically pantomime that you should put everything together in your smaller eating bowl. The combination of flavors combine alchemically to produce a flavor that is complex and delicious.


Cha ca in Hanoi.

I knew that I would want to make Cha Ca at home, and the ingredients were pretty obvious, but my first time I was still a little worried about having the right kind of noodles, fish sauce, etc. I went down to Kam Man, a pan-Asian grocery on Canal between Mulberry and Mott, and to a fish market a few doors down for ingredients, and also made a pit stop at my local bodega, which happens to have very fresh produce — that was all it took. And I just have to say, I f***ing rule, because it came out PERFECT. If you want to make cha ca at home, here is how.

For the table, you will need:

Cold Noodles — I bought two kinds of dried noodles: one clearer looking “bean vermicelli” from Kam Man that listed its ingredients as “green beans, water” and another package of “rice vermicelli” from the bodega. I preferred the taste and the slightly stickier texture of the “bean vermicelli,” as the rice vermicelli seemed too chalky and slimy. Both types of noodles are prepared by submerging them in warm water (tap water is fine) for about 5-7 minutes until the noodles rehydrate. Then they should be drained and placed in a large bowl.

Nuoc Cham — Be sure to purchase Vietnamese fish sauce (nuoc mam), not Thai fish sauce (nam pla) . You can either make nuoc cham by combining the nuoc mam with water, rice vinegar, garlic, chili pepper, and sugar, or you can be a lazy slob like me and buy it pre-mixed. The brand I bought called it “Spring Roll Sauce.”

Chopped Herbs — You will want one bunch of dill and one bunch of cilantro. I also used one bunch of mint just for the heck of it but that’s not the way it’s done over there. Wash, dry, and roughly chop each of the herbs and place in separate bowls.

Chopped Scallions — Two bunches should do it. Cut each scallion down the middle, and then diagonally into slices.

Chopped Roasted Peanuts — I used Kam Man’s roasted peanuts, which actually look like they have been deep-fried, rather than roasted, but who knows. Toss into the food processor and pulse until coarsely chopped.

For the fish, you will need:

Semi-firm fleshed white fish — I bought two large fillets in Chinatown that I was told was flounder but I suspect of being scrod.

Turmeric and Rice Flour — Combined in equal parts, enough for dredging. Add salt & pepper to taste.

Peanut Oil — About 1 cup per batch.

Butter — If you’re naughty. I used just about 1 tablespoon per batch to add flavor. Clarified butter would have been better, as the milk solids can spatter a bit.

First prepare everything for the table. Set out a cork mat or a trivet on the table for the fish pan.

Cut the fish into 1 1/2 inch squares and dredge in the turmeric mixture. Add oil and butter to a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat, and get it nice and hot (shimmery texture, just before smoking.) Add the fish, but don’t crowd the pan. If there is too much to go in one batch, reserve fish for a second batch. Cook the fish in the oil, turning once, for about five minutes. Bring the whole pan to the table, and add dill and scallions to taste. Each person then assembles their own bowl as they like.

A good accompaniment is shitty Asian beer, like Tsingtao or Tiger beer