Many years ago, we climbed some treacherous old creaky and narrow staircase to a second floor restaurant in the old quarter of Hanoi where they only sold one epinymous item, Cha Ca La Vong. Another famous restaurant also serves it but calls it Cha Ca Thang long, so to many people, the name of this dish depends on which restaurant you ate in. Although the name “cha ca” implies that it’s a fish paste, it’s actually small nuggets of meaty white fish marinated in turmeric and galangal, fried and served at your table with generous topping of dill on a sizzling straight from the pan.
In the US, it’s often served on a sizzling fajita skillet to mimick the sizzle of the table side frying at the famous Hanoi restaurant. The fragrant flavors of the turmeric and galangal marinaded fish and fresh dill goes so well together. This dish is a real crowd pleaser if you decide to cook this at the table as we do on our induction burner with a cast iron skillet.
Traditionally this dish is dressed with a fermented shrimp paste sauce that is similar to mam nem (except without the crushed pineapples). This sauce is a bit more pungent (read stinky) than fish sauce but is prepared similar to nuoc mam dipping sauce. First start with the lime, sugar, and water making a bland lime-ade, then slowly add the shrimp paste, mix well and taste and adjust according to taste. The shrimp paste is much stronger then fish sauce so start small and slow. If you don’t care for this sauce and prefer nuoc mam dipping sauce, that’s not a problem at all.
Here’s a video of how we put this dish together:
- 1 lb white fish filet firm meaty fish such as catfish, cod, rockfish, halibut cut in 1.5 inch pieces
- 1 ts turmeric powder
- 1/4 ts galangal powder if not available at your Asian market, substitute ginger powder
- 1 tbs garlic minced
- 1 tbs shallots minced
- 1/2 ts salt
- 1/2 ts sugar
- 1/2 ts fish sauce
- 2 tbs cooking oil
- 1 medium yellow onion thinly sliced
- 2 stalks green onions cut into 1 inch segments
- 1 cup dill thick stems removed and coarsely chopped
- 1 tbs peanuts roasted coarsely crushed
- 1 package vermicelli noodles boiled and drained according to directions
- Fresh herbs mint, perilla (tia to), lettuce, Vietnamese balm (kinh gioi)
Mam nem sauce
- 1 ts fine shrimp paste
- 2 tbs fresh squeezed lime juice
- 2 tbs of sugar
- 2 tbs of water
- 1 ts garlic minced
- 1 ts chile chopped or sambal
- Combine oil, turmeric, galangal, garlic, shallots, salt, sugar, and fish sauce in large bowl and mix well. Marinade the fish nuggets in the fridge for minimum 30 minutes.
- Make the mam nem sauce and boil the vermicelli noodles and set aside.
- Add about 3-4 tbs of cooking oil deep cast iron skillet. Get the oil nice and hot to about 350 degrees. Rinse off excess marinade and pan fry the fish, flipping to make sure they are browned both sides. When they are just just about done, add the onions and the dill and scallions and gently pan mix without breaking fish. Cook until herbs and onions have softened about another minute. Remove from heat and garnish with peanuts and serve immediately with vermicelli noodles, fresh herbs, and mam nem sauce.