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:
Cha Ca Thang Long (Cha Ca La Vong)
The trick with this dish is to cook the fish nuggets without breaking them. Pan fry with enough oil to that it covers about 1/2 of fish nuggets.
You can drain out excess oil before adding the herbs.
1 lb of firm white fish fillets cut into 2 inch segments or fish nuggets (catfish, cod, rockfish, halibut--but any meaty firm white fish will do)
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1/4 teaspoon galangal powder (if not available at your Asian market, substitute ginger powder)
1 tbs minced garlic
1 tbs minced shallots
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon of fish sauce
2 tbs of cooking oil
1 cup of green onion cut about 1.5 inch segments
1 cup of fresh dill coarsely chopped (thick stems removed)
dry roasted peanuts, coarsely crushed, for garnish
vermicelli noodles (boiled and drained)
Fresh mints (rau thom), perilla (tia to), lettuce, Vietnamese balm (kinh gioi)
Mam Tom Sauce
2 fresh squeezed lime juice
2 tablespoon of sugar
2 tablespoons of water
1 teaspoon of mam tom (fine fermented shrimp paste)
1 teaspoon of minced garlic
1 teaspoon of chopped red chili or chili garlic paste
Make the mam nem sauce and boil the vermicelli noodles and set aside.
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.
Fill deep cast iron skillet with enough oil to deep fry the nuggets. Get the oil nice and hot to about 350 degrees. Rinse off excess marinade and pan fry the nuggets, flipping if necessary. Drain out excess oil if desired. When they are just just about done, top with the dill and scallions and gently work that to the bottom of the pan being. It looks like a lot, but don't worry the herbs will wilt. Stir gently to combine. Garnish with peanuts and serve immediately with vermicelli noodles, fresh herbs, and mam nem sauce.