April 18, 2008
5A Tran Nhat Duat Street
District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Chả Cá Hà Nội – fried fish fillets with dill and spring onions (89,000 VND per person)
Fixins – vermicelli rice noodles, peanuts, fresh herbs, rice crackers, limes, fish sauce and shrimp paste
Ca Cuong Drops – a pheromone liquid from a tiny gland behind the wings of the male Ca Cuong, a beetle that lives in the rice fields (28,000 VND per drop)
Ever since The Astronomer made his way to Hanoi and tried Chả Cá without me, I’ve been suffering from palate envy. In order to even the score, we headed to Chả Cá Hà Nội in Saigon with our friend Hawkins a few weeks back. I’ll make my way to Hanoi one of these days, but until then, this southern version will have to suffice.
Even though the restaurant is named Chả Cá Hà Nội, it actually serves a number of other dishes, but we came for the house specialty. Before the star of the show arrived, our waitress brought out an array of accouterments including spliced spring onions, noodles, toasted peanuts, herbs, limes chilies, shrimp paste and fish sauce.
Wandering Chopsticks sent me an interesting article a few months back about the joys of pairing water beetle musk with Chả Cá, so we ordered a squirt of ca cuong out of curiosity. I was expecting our waitress to extract juices from an actual beetle, but instead she had a sterile little bottle filled with clear liquid.
I tasted the fish sauce both pre and post beetle droplet and couldn’t tell the difference between the two, which was rather disappointing. We could have shelled out 28,000 more dong for another drop, but were too skeptical (and cheap) to do so. Next time, I’ll just ask the waitress to squirt the musk directly onto my tongue and have the beetle essence permeate the dish that way. To the left is a picture of our waitress adding a drop of water beetle essence into our nuoc mam.
The fish arrived sizzling on a frying pan and was placed on a table-side burner to continue cooking. Our waitress added a pile of greenery including fresh dill and scallions to marinate with the fish.
After the fish and herbs were perfectly melded, we excitedly assembled our bowls of Chả Cá Hà Nội. I began with a cool pile of noodles, added in toasted peanuts and broken bits of rice cracker, spooned on the hot fish and herbs, drizzled on some shrimp paste and squeezed in a smidgen of lime. The end result was not only pretty, but spectacularly delicious too.
I sometimes feel that Vietnamese food can get a little redundant due to the constant employment of pickled vegetables, fish sauce, fresh herbs, etc., but Chả Cá is definitely a unique treat within the genre. What sets this dish apart from other Vietnamese standbys is the pungent shrimp paste and strong shot of dill.
According to The Astronomer, the version we had down south was just as good as the one he enjoyed in Hanoi.