The first time I tasted Chả Cá Lã Vọng, fried fish La Vong style, was in the famous 120 year old La Vong restaurant in Hanoi in 1996. It was the only dish served, along with beer and tea, so it saved any confusion about ordering. In those days, you entered the restaurant via steep rickety stairs and soon after, a tiny terracotta brazier was placed on the table, coals glowing, along with a small aluminium frypan, and a platter full of various ingredients, which were quickly cooked, layered and assembled before your hungry eyes.
I always vowed that I would make that dish on my return to Melbourne, once I had acquired a little authentic table top cooker. I never did, although I often saw some small charcoal braziers, moulded in the shape of a bucket, along Victoria Street in Richmond. Now twenty years have passed and I did not expect to see this famous dish from Hanoi turn up in Hoi An. It was a very good version too and transported me back to the more spartan days of Hanoi, where young women still wore pure white Au Dai and the spirit of Uncle Ho was alive and well.
We visited Vy’s Market Restaurant in Hoi An and were surprised to find Cha Ca on the menu. Vy’s is a huge dining hall with various cooking stations around the perimeter. You can watch rice pancakes being grilled on hot coals, young apprentices making vegetarian wonton, noodles being stretched and woks tossed. You can learn a lot here without attending their famous cooking school.
Marinade for fish.
- 1/2 kilo neutral tasting white fish, cut into 2.5 cm pieces
- small knob of ginger, grated
- ½ tsp salt
- 1 tsp Nuoc Mam (Vietnamese Fish Sauce)
- 1 tsp Mam Ruoc (Vietnamese Fermented Shrimp Paste)
- 1 tsp ground black pepper
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1 piece ( small finger) of fresh turmeric, pounded or 1 teas turmeric powder
- A small amount of neutral oil
- 1 bunch spring onions, chopped into long pieces, white and green parts used. Thick white ends cut through lengthwise.
- 1 large bunch dill, chopped into 2-inch pieces
- 2 cloves garlic, smashed
- roasted unsalted peanuts, chopped
- Bun (Vietnamese rice vermicelli noodles), soaked or cooked so ready to use.
- Herbs- rau ram (Vietnamese coriander), tia to (Vietnamese perilla), more dill. ( not basil- the predominant taste is dill)
- Fresh chopped chilli or chilli sambal
Place the fish in the marinade ingredients and mix well. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1-2 hours.
Place the fish and its marinade in a small frying pan over a table top cooker. ( you can do this on a regular stove but part of the drama of the dish is assembling it before the diner). Pan fry the fish for a few minutes, then begin adding the flavours. First some of the herbs, especially the dill and spring onion, then half the peanuts. Toss about for 30 seconds, then add the rice noodle and perilla, toss about, incorporating the noodles through the fish. Then add the remaining herbs, the chilli and more peanuts. Serve with plain rice.
This version of Cha Ca was was enjoyed at Vy’s Market Restaurant and Cooking School, 3 Nguyen Hoang Street, An Hoi Islet, Hoi An and cost a little under AU $10, one of the most expensive items on the menu.The tofu dish cost AU$3.88. A small tiger beer is around AU$2. The prices are a bit higher than many of the local restaurants but the quality here is superb. Highly recommended for those yearning to visit or return to Hoi An.