Vietnam is a bit of a sore spot on our culinary travels. It was the happy setting of many a sunset cocktail and summer roll. But it was also the trip in which Charlie got such bad food poisoning that he shed one of the three tears I’ve ever seen him shed. And on New Year’s Eve, no less.
But as they used to say in Indochina, c’est la vie?
One of my biggest regrets of the trip, in addition to forcing Charlie to go on a street food tour with me, was not making it up North. I was dying to experience French cafe culture in Hanoi, and take some selfies in Halong Bay. But mostly, I wanted to taste Cha Ca La Vong.
This Vietnamese fish dish has popped up on many of the best pan-Asian menus in the States (including Pok Pok and Wong in NYC), all with their own spins on the combination of ginger, turmeric and fresh dill. The fact that said combination makes absolutely no sense on paper is probably one of the reasons why so many chefs have traveled straight to the source (a restaurant by the same name in Hanoi) just to try it.
The base of Cha Ca La Vong is similar to many Vietnamese dishes: fish sauce, garlic, lime juice, and sugar. But the turmeric and dill give it a whole new dimension, both bright and pungent at the same time. The invasive deep yellow sauce bleeds into everything it sits upon, usually a nest of fresh rice noodles (bun) and crunchy greens.
Vietnamese cuisine essentially treats fresh herbs like Applebee’s treats shredded iceberg. It’s pretty much always piled onto plates as a miscellaneous garnish, and eaten in larger quantities (often in one mouthful) than most Americans allot to their total daily vegetables. This is one of the reasons why the country makes for such a great healthy hedonist destination. And it’s also why, when the weather starts to turn springy, I immediately start craving Vietnamese food.
That cha ca la vong uses dill instead of the usual Thai basil and mint, just makes the dish even springier in my eyes. So I’ve continued the game of chefly telephone and created my own easy at-home version. You simply toss the fish with all the ingredients and let it marinate for a few minutes on the counter. Instead of cooking it stovetop (small apartment folk, you can thank me later), I turn it out on a baking dish and broil it. The whole thing comes together in one pan, in 15 minutes. You can also make it en papilloite for even less clean-up, and even more Franco Vietnamese vibes.
The end result tastes a lot like one of my favorite tofu dishes from Peter Berley, which uses mustard instead of turmeric to get a similar bitterness. So if you want to go veg on this one, by all means use some tofu instead of the fish.
I served my Cha Ca La Vong with a combination of these Laksa noodles (they taste like real homemade bun!) and a head of Bibb lettuce. You can of course go the paleo route and just eat them as lettuce wraps.
Hanoi is still on my bucket list, but being able to recreate this famous Vietnamese fish recipe is a perfect way to tastetrot there on my own. And at least I know there will be no street food casualties and tears as a result of the adventure.
From one healthy Hanoi-bound hedonist, to another,
Vietnamese Fish with Turmeric-Dill Sauce (Cha Ca La Vong)
This classic Hanoi recipe combines Vietnamese catfish with fresh dill, sliced onions, fish sauce and turmeric. The ingredients are a totally unexpected combination, but they WORK. You can use any semi-firm white fish, or even tofu for a veggie version. To make this Paleo you can omit the rice noodles, or sub kelp or miracle noodles. Or just serve the whole thing in lettuce wraps!
- 1/2 medium red onion, thinly sliced
- 1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh dill
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger root
- 1/4 cup Vietnamese fish sauce
- 1/4 cup fresh lime juice
- 2 tablespoons coconut oil
- 2 teaspoons sriracha
- 2 teaspoons honey or cane sugar, optional
- 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1 pound catfish, cod, haddock, halibut or other white semi-firm fish, cut into 2-inch cubes
- 14 ounces rice noodles, cooked according to package directions, for serving
- 1 head Bibb or Boston lettuce, for serving
- Preheat the broiler.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine the red onion, 2 tablespoons dill, garlic, ginger, fish sauce, lime juice, coconut oil, sriracha, honey and turmeric; stir until combined. Fold in the fish and set aside to marinate for 10 minutes at room temperature.
- Meanwhile, cook the rice noodles according to packaged directions and divide between 4 bowls with a few leaves of Bibb lettuce as garnish.
- Transfer the fish to an 8x8 baking dish and broil until the fillets are cooked through and the red onions are tender, about 5 minutes.
- Spoon the fish over the noodles and lettuce and garnish with the remaining dill. A few extra lime wedges wouldn’t hurt either.