Monday, March 10, 2008
I love Vietnamese food, in general, for many reasons. It has the ability to really trigger the salty, sweet and sour facets of our palates and send you back wanting more. The food is light, fresh, bright and healthy (minus the deep fried dishes of course). After trying this dish called bun ca thi la (Dill & Turmeric Fish Noodles) at Viet Soy Cafe in Silver Lake, I had to make this for myself. Viet Soy Cafe & Viet Noodle Bar serves Hanoi-style food, which according to the owner, is generally lighter in taste and not as robust as its Southern counterpart. I've heard this applies especially to pho, which originated in Hanoi, and brought down to the South during the war. Hanoi-style pho usually serves less shrubbery (bean sprouts, limes, herbs) and sticks with the standard chili sauces and jalapeno. The result is a clearer soup that has a delicate taste because less spices such as anise are omitted. Nothing a few dashes of fish sauce couldn't do for a bowl of soup noodles.
Viet Tran calls his dish bun ca thi la because he serves it with bun rice noodles. But this dish is more popularly known as cha ca which was made popular by the landmark Hanoi restaurant, Cha Ca La Vong. Graham of Noodle Pie and my very own J both state that the fish is first grilled partially in the kitchen and brought to the table in a sizzling platter for the final cooking process. Awesome. Viet Tran gave me a 'rough' recipe for his dish, so I combined it with the recipe found in Andrea Nguyen's "Into the Vietnamese Kitchen". If you're a fan of Vietnamese cooking, this is a great book to help you take your first step. J got me some cookbooks from her Vietnam trip last year but don't do me any good because they are, well, in Vietnamese. So this book is perfect. Nguyen's book is a great portal into her life as a Vietnamese immigrant and writes a little intro for all of her dishes. Nguyen also has her own blog and is quite responsive to my annoying emails about "what kind of shrimp sauce do you like to use?" Thanks Andrea.
On to the dish. Viet Tran uses sole fillet, Nguyen uses catfish... I chose a type of catfish called basa, which is native to the Mekong river and is in the same family of catfish. Why this fish? It all begins with my love for Best Fish Tacos In Ensenada. The owner, Joseph Cordova, chose this fish with his experience as a wholesale seafood buyer. The fish is flaky yet moist... it's fantabulous. We then took J's parents to eat at BFTIE and they fell in love with the fish tacos. The following week, they headed over to a market and found the basa fillets for like $2.50/lb and gave me a nice frozen gift from the seas of 99 Ranch. Also, Nguyen calls for sour cream in her recipe, but I decided to try for the soy milk because it's much lighter. I'm sure hers taste awesome, so whatever you like.
Ingredients (approximations... i never measure. adjust to your own taste)
2 lbs. of basa catfish (or sole)
soy milk (small bottle for under a $1)
1.5 tablespoons ground turmeric
1 tablespoon fresh galangal juice or galangal powder
1.5 tablespoons of fine shrimp sauce (mam ruoc or mam tom)*
rice noodles (I used something called banh tam, which was sold fresh)
1/2 a cup of fried shallots
small handful of fresh dill
chili sauce (Sriracha)
(1) Wash fillets, pat dry and cut fillets into 4" x 1" pieces. Mix the turmeric, fine shrimp sauce, galangal (i didn't have a grater so i julienned the galangal root... a 1" block of it) and about 2-3 tablespoons of fish sauce in a bowl. Taste it and see what it needs, add sugar to balance out the salinity. Add soy milk (Viet Tran's style) to the mixture and taste it once more for a balance check. You should have something pungent but not overwhelming. Because of the usage of fish sauce, things will SMELL far stronger than it TASTES. Add the fillets in a container, and pour the mixture on the fish, making sure it's well-coated. Marinate for at least 2 hours.
(2) Nguyen calls for broiling in the oven, but I don't have a broiler. I simply pan fried the fish on medium heat, 4-5 minutes on first side, and 2 minutes more after you flip them.
(3) Prepare the noodles. Depending on what type of noodle you use, some will be quick (fresh bun noodles or banh tam). The noodles should have a nice bite to it. Drain the noodles and shock in cold water to stop the cooking.
(4) Once the fish is done cooking, you can heat up the noodles or just eat them room temperature – both will taste fine. Set the fish aside on top of the noodles. You're almost there.
(5) Heat a small pan on medium and add oil once it's hot enough. Once it starts to smoke, add chopped scallions, fresh dill and fried scallions. Stir it around and make sure they are quickly seared. Turn off the heat. Add the mixture on top of the fish noodles. More shallots, the better it is! Add a few dashes of fish sauce and hot sauce, and you're good to go.
*Mam ruoc or mam tom is finely ground shrimp sauce, that's been fermented with salt. It's a purple-color paste that has a very strong odor to it. This isn't as potent as the Thai or Laotian versions known as gup bee. Nguyen recommends Lee Kum Kee or Koon Chun, which are Chinese-style. I went for the sauce labeled completely in Vietnamese - no sign of any english.