Hanoi fish (Cha Ca La Vong)

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I spent most of my visit to Hanoi in 2005 totally freaked out by the traffic. For starters, there were barely any traffic lights, and any that did exist were customarily ignored by drivers with barely any concept of road rules. Not only was crossing the wide road intersections (filled with 10 lanes of traffic) about as relaxing as jumping into a pit of wolves – the traffic never stops, EVER – but walking on the pavements was also fraught with peril.  Every few seconds a massive motorbike would roar a hair’s breadth alongside us, aided by specially-made metal ramps to ease their trajectory onto the pedestrian’s path. I trembled with panic on every street, gingerly picking my way along, clinging to my husband like an old biddy. Get me, Mrs Adventuresome!

The only reason I managed to cross any roads at all was a) thanks to my husband for dragging me across while I shrieked with fear and b) the elderly ladies and gents who I used as ‘body padding’ by crossing the road at precisely the same time as them, next to them, knowing that they would get more respect from any drivers than a pale, lardy foreigner such as I. It worked every time. Traffic in the Vietnamese cities has to be seen to be believed – old doddery folk brandishing walking sticks walk slowly but fearlessly out into the seething morass of tuk-tuks, motorbikes and lorries, as the traffic weaves around them. The trick is to never slow your walking pace: hesitate at your peril!

Despite all the stress I felt at the time, Hanoi remains in my memory as one of the most amazing and fascinating capital cities I have ever travelled to – it’s completely intoxicating, a mixture of old-school communist atmosphere and quaint charm twinned with bonkers energy and rampant progress. It’s a city that never sleeps, and everyone is busy ALL the time. And the traffic never stops roaring. Anyway. Have you ever tried the dish of Vietnamese Hanoi Fish (Cha Ca La Vong)? It’s bloody sensational – in Hanoi itself there is a restaurant named after it, the only dish on the menu. Pieces of fish are smothered in a fragrant turmeric sauce, served with dill, spring onions, rice noodles and peanuts. Here it is:

(Image courtesy of Smitten by Food*)

cha ca la vong

Unless it’s had a makeover post 2005, the restaurant is pretty low key. You ascend a narrow staircase to find yourself in a narrow dining room filled with formica tables and the heady scent of fish and dill. Heads are bowed over delicious food. Waiters bring hot stove burners to each table and individually wok-fry the dish in front of you, sizzling and fragrant, the chilli tickling your nostrils. You ease the heat in your throat with cold local beers. There are no frills. You pay in cash. There is no website. Eating here was a definite highlight of my stay in Hanoi.

Since then, I have been experimenting with my own versions of Cha Ca La Vong at home. The traditional way to serve it is to have individual bowls of fresh herbs, peanuts and a plate of rice noodles on the table that guests help themselves too, before topping with the hot stir-fried fish. As it’s a dish that needs to be eaten straight out of the wok, immediately, I find that if you’re making it for guests, it’s good to serve as a one-bowl dish with the noodles underneath. That way, nothing gets cold on the table. Also, I’m too short of time and not organised enough to have rice noodles sitting on the table that don’t go cold and stick together. Too much pfaffing already!

So, I’m probably committing sacrilege, but this is my simplified version of Cha Ca La Vong – and it’s no less tasty for not being served completely the traditional way.

Serves 4 in large noodle soup bowls

You will need:

700g firm white fleshed fish cut into large chunks (I used line-caught cod, but you can also use monkfish) In Vietnam, catfish fillets are more commonly used, but I don’t think you can easily find these in England.
1 bunch spring onions – white parts cut into small discs, longer green parts left as 2 inch lengths
1 large bunch fresh dill, roughly chopped

Marinade:

3 thumb-length pieces fresh turmeric (if you can’t get this, just use 2tsp dried turmeric powder)
1 tsp turmeric powder
3 tbsp natural yoghurt
3 tsp cider/rice vinegar
1 birdseye chilli, chopped
2 tbsp fish sauce
1 thumb fresh ginger (traditionally, galangal is used, but ginger is also v good here)
You can also add a tsp or two of sugar, but I find you don’t need it.

For the noodles:

Enough rice noodles for your group (depends on greed)
2 carrots, cut into very thin julienne strips
A few lettuce leaves, shredded

A large handful of coriander, chopped

Dressing for the noodles: 5 tbsps fish sauce, 1/2 tbsp sunflower oil, juice of 1 lime, 1 crushed clove garlic, 3 chopped birdseye chillies, 1/3 cup water – just gently whisk everything together.

Garnish: 1/2 cup roasted crushed peanuts, lime wedges

Make the marinade by either pounding everything together in a pestle and mortar, or whizzing up in a food processor – you’re aiming for a ‘smoothie’ consistency. Marinade the chunks of fish just 30 minutes before you want to cook – don’t leave any longer, because the vinegar will ‘cook’ the fish.

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Cook your noodles, and when they’re done, drain and then toss with the dressing, shredded lettuce and carrot strips. (You could always make a small bowl of dressing for people to serve themselves from; if you do that, just toss a little oil through the noodles with the lettuce and carrot to stop everything sticking together)

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Get two shallow pans on the heat (I used a wok and a frying pan) and fry the spring onions in a couple of tablespoons of sunflower oil until slightly softened. Then add the marinated fish in such a way that the pieces aren’t touching each other too much – turn them only once as you don’t want them to break apart too much. Add the dill to soften, gently stir it in. A couple of minutes should do it.

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Serve the fish quickly on top of the dressed noodles in large bowls – sprinkle with toasted crushed peanuts and squeeze over a wedge of fresh lime per bowl. It’s a total flavour revelation – woody spiciness, fiery ginger and fragrant dill all complement the fish beautifully. A dish to make again and again!

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Cha Ca La Vong Restaurant
14 Pho Cha Ca
Hanoi, Vietnam

*The reason I had to nick a photo from another site was that all the pictures I took at the time of my trip to Vietnam were with good old-fashioned film, so I have no digital images! I wish I could go back…one day eh? Thanks to Smitten by Food.

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4 comments

  1. This looks and sounds divine! Glad I stumbled across your blog – looking forward to posts xx

    1. Thanks Emily :o) I really recommend that you try this one out, it’s not as fiddly as it might sound…

  2. We are making this right now!

    1. Bloody marvellous!

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