My husband Bob and I love ethnic food. He is always trying to encourage me to direct my creative energy into cooking different types of cuisine. I have a rather large collection of cookbooks; but have limited access to authentic ingredients locally. However, with the advent of the internet, resources for unique and exotic ingredients are readily available.
I recently visited my dear friends, Dawn and Lisa in Austin, Texas and was inspired by a Vietnamese dish that I tasted at a restaurant called Elizabeth Street Café. Austin may be a music capital of the world but it is also, if not already, an up and coming food destination as well. The city certainly has some mighty fine food trucks!
I’ve written about how much I enjoy my visits to this capital city in a previous post (“I Love Texas” archive April 2014). You cannot visit this town and not appreciate authentic Tex/Mex food. I made my traditional stop at a favorite Tex/Mex restaurant, Chuy’s immediately upon arriving but later in the week had the opportunity to try something new and interesting for me in Austin ~ a Vietnamese dish called Chà Cá Redfish. Once I returned home I prepared it for my husband (with my twist of course) which made him very happy!
Chà Cá simply means fish cakes in Vietnamese. Typically, they are prepared with turmeric and a LARGE quantity of dill then pan-fried. The heat of the hot peppers amps up the dish to come together harmoniously with the herbs and spices for a flavor explosion to the palate. Every bite sings in your mouth. The dish was earthy, savory and a beautiful color. So stimulating to many of the senses; a truly magical balance.
Chà Cá Thăng Long is a signature dish of Hanoi. I won’t likely travel to Vietnam in this lifetime so I wanted to create the dish myself. The basis for the marinade is fish sauce. Vietnamese fish sauce is made from anchovies, is thick and rather pungent. I inquired about the sauce to a Vietnamese friend who told me that her mother and grandmother both dilute the fish sauce with carbonated coconut water. They believe this addition adds a touch of sweetness to balance out the spiciness and the bite of the anchovy. I did not prepare my dish utilizing this tip.
Spicy food fires up metabolism, and creates energy by increasing blood flow which in turn improves digestion. Acidic foods can also boost the immune system (think Vitamin C and the common cold). Cooking is after all a science as well as an art and flavor pairings are like food soul mates that support one another. ‘Eastern’ cuisines do this all the time. Perhaps this is the basis of food medicine.
These fish cakes surprisingly use a very large amount of dill. I say that because historically it is the eastern Europeans, specifically the Poles, who use it in cooking. The French seem to use fennel in its place and of course the American dill pickle is a known standard. In Asia it is cultivated mostly in India. I grow dill as I like the airy plant and so do the Monarch butterflies. Anything to attract them and any other beneficial insect is a bonus in my book. Dill (Anethum graveolens) is an annual that resents being disturbed, so plant it where it will stay all summer. I like it in salads and it of course pairs beautifully with seafood, especially fish.
The other main ingredient in Chà Cá is turmeric. This spice adds the lovely golden color to the dish. Turmeric is a member of the ginger family. To make the spice, the rhizome of the plant is boiled, and then dried in a very hot oven. It is then ground into a deep orangish-yellow powder used especially in curries. It can also be used as a dye. If you have ever gotten the powder on your hands or on a plastic container, you will understand its staining power. The pigment in turmeric is a compound called curcumin which is actually an anti-oxidant. Medicinally, it has also been used as an anti-inflammatory although there is little strong clinical evidence to support this claim.
When I prepared Chà Cá, redfish was not available at my local fish market so I substituted rockfish (aka striped bass). Any white fish with a thinner filet will do. Also, red Thai chili peppers are preferred but I had to use jalapeño instead. Basically, you marinate the fish for 1-2 hours (I left the marinade on for cooking but some recipes will tell you to remove it) then pan sear it in a screaming hot pan ~ to the point of almost smoking. I have to do this on a side burner of the gas grill as it makes a mess inside and my cook top is electric. Just to add this little ditty…some purists believe that the process of pan-frying generates carcinogenic toxins. Obviously these people don’t eat bacon…
Ali’s Vietnamese Pan-seared Fish with Turmeric and Dill
For the marinade:
- 3 T. Vietnamese fish sauce
- 1 t. turmeric
- 2 T. fresh garlic, minced
- 1 T. fresh ginger, grated
- 1 T. fresh dill, chopped
- ¼ t. fresh ground pepper
- 6 scallions, chopped
- 2 large white fish filets*
For the plated dish:
- 3 T. canola oil, divided
- 1 small white onion, sliced
- 1 large bunch dill, stems removed and chopped
- 6 scallions, cut into 1 inch segments
- 1 T. red Thai chili paste
- 3 T. sesame oil**
- 1 lb. Vermicelli noodles, prepared as per package
- 1 large jalapeño pepper, sliced (or any red-hot chili pepper)
- ½ c. chopped peanuts, toasted
- In a large bowl, combine all 7 ingredients for the marinade and pour over the fish. Cover and refrigerate for 1-2 hours.
- In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of canola oil. Add onion and cook until lightly browned.
- Add 1/3 of the dill and scallions; sauté for 1-2 minutes.
- Keep warm and set aside for plating the dish.
- In a small bowl, combine chili paste and sesame oil.
- Boil Vermicelli noodles as per package instructions.
- Coat cooked noodles with chili paste oil; keep warm.
- Remove fish from the refrigerator. Using a large cast-iron skillet, heat remaining canola oil over high heat.
- Sear the fish 3-4 minutes per side until evenly crisp.
- Combine onion, dill and scallion mixture with coated cooked noodles.
- Plate noodle mixture and immediately top with cooked fish.
- Top with, peanuts, jalapeño peppers and remaining dill.
*Traditionally this dish cuts the fish into bite sized pieces for serving. I prefer to serve the filet whole so that the fish boldly stands out.
**Adjust the amount of sesame oil to create an emulsion with the chili paste for coating the noodles. Also note that the addition of the paste adds more heat to the dish so you may want to go easy on the hot peppers.
I always have leftovers with this dish. Add mango salsa to cut the heat in fish tacos or serve the fish in lettuce wraps with a peanut sauce for a nice lunch twist.