Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Cha Ca La Vong (Vietnamese Turmeric Fried Fish with Dill and Green Onion)

Finally the stars have aligned for me to try making some of the amazing food that we had on our Vietnam trip at home. For me, easily the best meal was the trip was the cha ca (pronounced cha ga) that we had in Hanoi at Cha Ca La Vong. At the time, it was a "this is what I've been waiting for" moment to look down on this small dish in front of me filled with rice noodles, fresh herbs, sauteed fish, and fish sauce vinaigrette.

Cha Ca La Vong has become an institution for Hanoi's famous do-it-yourself turmeric fried fish with dill and green onions, with a history that dates over a century old. In fact, in the Old Quarter where the restaurant is located, it resides at the address of 14 Cha Ca Street and the same restaurant has been at the same address since 1874. Not many restaurants can say they have a street named after them. The restaurant itself was a model of efficiency. The staff is bossy and curt, which has given them a lukewarm reputation in the form of online reviews, but they were more than happy to carefully show us how to prepare a dish (it is pretty overwhelming to sit down and have a half dozen dishes laid out in front of you with different stuff in each one). I did have one small complaint though: it was immediately obvious upon entry that they had one room for Vietnamese customers and another room for everyone else. Part of the charm of being in a place like that is seeing how people eat, how they interact, feeling immersed in this country over 8000 miles away from home. Instead I felt a little sectioned off like I wasn't cool enough to play with the big kids. But really, it was a small price to pay for this classic. It's also very easy to make at home, using ingredients that are generally easy to find, and cooking time is just a matter of minutes.

Before we get started, here's a quick refresher photo from our trip. This was my reference material. I found several recipes online for cha ca but none of them seemed quite right, so I ended up taking bits and pieces from multiple to put this recipe together. I was so happy with how this turned out - aside from the fact that my Vietnamese cooking experience is slim to none, I feel like the flavors and ingredients nearly perfectly matched what we had at the real restaurant.

Cha Ca La Vong (Vietnamese Turmeric Fried Fish with Dill and Green Onion)

1 lb catfish (or other firm whitefish)
½ lb green onion
1 large bunch fresh dill - stalks and fronds
1 bunch fresh thai basil
1 bunch fresh cilantro
1 c roasted salted peanuts
1 package dried rice noodles/vermicelli (small)

3 cloves of garlic, very finely minced
2 tsp ground turmeric
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 small medium red chilli, finely chopped
½ tsp sugar
½ tsp salt

Dipping Sauce (Nuoc Mam Cham):
(adapted from Ravenous Couple - http://www.theravenouscouple.com/2009/06/nuoc-mam-cham-vietnamese-dipping-fish-sauce.html)
1/2 cup lukewarm water
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
2 tablespoon fresh squeezed lime juice (about 2 limes)
2 tablespoons sugar
1 thai chile pepper, seeded and minced
3 clove of garlic, minced
~1/8 cup fish sauce, adjust to taste

Begin by making the marinade and preparing the fish.  Cut your catfish into small 1-2" sections (think bite size) and place them in a dish.  Mince the garlic finely - if you have a microplane grater, now is a great time to pull it out.  You can get a nice garlic paste by grating the garlic with it.  Add all of the marinade ingredients to the dish with the fish and mix well with your hands.  Warning:  you will have yellow hands for about 2 days after this if you don't wear gloves!  Allow the fish to marinate in the refrigerator for as long as possible - up to overnight.

Next up make the dipping sauce.  Combine all ingredients except for fish sauce and mix or whisk until the sugar dissolves.  Since fish sauce can be kind of strong, you can start adding it after the vinaigrette is mostly finished, and season to taste.  You want the vinaigrette to be seasoned relatively strongly for this dish.  I also added some salt to the vinaigrette just to my own taste - about ½ tsp.  This vinaigrette will keep for a week or longer so store the leftovers for another use.

Prep the dill and green onion by chopping into 2-3" long sections, discarding the root end of the green onions.  Tear off the basil and cilantro leaves from their stems and plate them on their own.

Prepare the rice noodles by boiling a pot of water.  When it is boiling, turn off the heat and add the rice noodles.  You probably don't need the entire package - for this recipe size, I used about 2/3 of a package.  Place the noodles in the hot water and allow them to sit for 5 minutes.  Check one of the noodles for doneness.  If it is still tough, allow them to sit for a couple more minutes, checking regularly to make sure they don't get mushy.  Drain and set aside.  I picked up some rice noodles from the local asian grocery store and found this totally sweet engrish that I had to share with everyone:

Ok back on task.  At Cha Ca La Vong, this dish is served tableside on a standalone burner.  You are given a bowl of dill and green onions and you add them to the frying fish yourself.  I am not quite willing to go out and buy a bunch of sternos to serve this thing tableside, so instead, grab your best heat retaining skillet (cast iron!!) and bring it up to med-hi heat.  Add a splash of canola oil and swirl it around.  Toss in the fish and allow them to saute for about 3 minutes, until browned on one side.  Flip each piece and allow to cook for about 1 minute more.  Toss all of the dill and green onions on top and let them saute for about a minute.  Start mixing the ingredients, allowing the greens to cook for about 3 minutes.  Turn off the heat and bring the hot pan to the table and place on a pot holder or something similar.  Your greens will continue to cook down at the table and you still get the sizzling platter ooh's and ahh's effect, like that guy who always orders fajitas at the mexican restaurant and gets that stupid grin on his face when they bring it out.  "Yeah.  That's mine.  I ordered the loud entree."

The final and fun step is plating.  This is all do-it-yourself.  Fill your bowl with the rice noodles, top with some dill and green onion and a piece or two of fish.  Add some of the herbs and peanuts, and spoon vinaigrette over the whole thing.  Cha Ca La Vong gives you small rice bowls, so you end up making 3 or 4 bowls over the course of the meal.  It's a nice slow way of eating, it makes the experience more pleasurable and gives you time to talk to the people you are eating with instead of gorging yourself.

Making this dish at home took me back to a country unlike any I've ever seen before.  It's memories like these that really resonate with me and will last a lifetime, and food is such a big trigger for memories that I do not doubt that I will look back and think fondly of my trip every time I make this dish... which will be a lot.  Because it was that good.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Garden Update

Well it's been a little while since my last garden update and things are continuing along really well.  I'm not really sure what format to do this in so I think I'll just make a list.

  • I did my first big fertilizer feeding about a week ago.  I'm using Garden Tone at the advice of the nursery that I bought all of my seeds and starters from, and it seems to be working really well.  Things were growing on their own, but there has been an incredible growth spurt since fertilizing.  The general process was to dig up a section of soil a few inches away from the roots of the plants, sprinkle fertilizer on top, and work it back in with a small hand shovel.  I let the garden dry a bit so that the soil was easily workable, then I gave it a really good watering afterwards.  For the tomatoes, I did a ring around each plant.  The tomatoes are probably the easiest growth increase to spot:  they have grown 6" or more since getting fertilizer.  They have also blossomed already!.
  • I planted some okra in a box planter.  Supposedly okra grows in single stalks that can be 40" or higher, with pods growing off of the main stalk.  I didn't have any room in the bed garden so I picked up a little box planter and started seeds in there.  I have 2 good stalks coming out, perfectly spaced, so I plan on staking them as they grow upwards and just seeing what happens.  They sprouted really quickly and seem to be very happy.

  • Radishes are doing really well, definitely the most successful vegetable so far.  Here's one of the small rows.  

  • Black eyed peas and Kentucky pole beans continue to be the apples of my eye.  They are growing like crazy.  I didn't have to thin any, which I'm really happy about.  I built a bamboo and twine trellis for them one day with twine lattice for them to climb.  I was really pretty proud of it, considering it's my first attempt at anything like that and I don't consider myself much of a builder, but it turned out well.  The tensile strength was definitely lacking though, and it became very obvious one night when it was really windy.  I could see the trellis sliding from side to side with the wind gusts, so at 11pm, I ran out with a pair of scissors and 2 camping stakes and staked out support runners.  Since then, things are much more stable and the vines are actually tall enough to begin attaching to the first lattice rung.  Here's how I built the trellis:

    - Start with 6 6' and 2 4' bamboo stakes, a large roll of garden twine, and 2 camping stakes
    - Build the supports first by standing them up where they will go, one support (2 stakes) at a time
    - Cross the stakes at the top leaving enough gap for the crossbeam support stakes to rest on top
    - Tie by wrapping twine around the outside and then interlacing inside/outside wraps to firmly secure the two stakes together
    - If you are able to push the stakes into the ground, they can stand on their own.  My yard is too rooted, hence the need for support stakes on the outsides
    - Repeat for each of the supports
    - Lay the crossbeam stakes on top and secure with more twine in the same fashion as before, interlacing and tying well to secure
    - You should have a free standing frame now
    - If you need support stakes, drive the camping stake into the ground a couple of feet away from the outside supports.  Take a very long piece of twine, tie a loop in one end, and run the twine between the stake and the support.  You can then run the loose end of twine through the looped end and pull until the line is taut.  Tie off the line either on the bamboo stakes or on the twine itself
    - Build the lattice by running twine parallel to the ground in regular distances.  I used the little knots in the bamboo as supports for the twine so that it didn't slide down the bamboo, it worked out that with that method I had new lines every 6" or so.  Keep the line as tight as possible, wrap twine around the middle support stake to keep the line taught if you have to
    - Build the vertical lattice support by taking one long piece of twine and tying it to the very bottom horizontal lattice twine.  Wrap it around each level of lattice until you get to the top.  Tighten the line and adjust each level as necessary so they stay relatively parallel with the ground.  Tie off at the top on the crossbeam support.  Do this for both sides.
    - That's it!  You now have a mediocre-to-suitable garden trellis for about $12.

somewhat ghetto trellis

black eyed peas

Kentucky blue pole beans

  • The last bit of garden news concerns my peppers.  For a long time, I assumed that they were a lost cause.  I planted them in the soil despite the package instructions specifically stating to start them indoors.  After 2 weeks of nothing, I assumed that conditions weren't right for them to grow outside and that it was a lost cause.  But lo and behold, they have proven me wrong.  Both Thai chile and poblano have decided to make an appearance, and I am really excited about it.  They are not planted in rows or anything, because they own a small corner of the garden.  I plan to keep one or two plants after thinning, with the hopes that they will become good sized bushes and keep to their corners.