Vietnamese-Style Fish with Turmeric and Dill
Updated: Apr 6
"Good morning, Vietnam!"
Robin Williams (1987)
I was moved to explore this dish after reading a recipe by Eleanor Maidment in the August 2020 edition of Waitrose Food magazine (although I have since discovered the recipe was first published in May 2017).
It is based on a Vietnamese dish called Chả Cá Thăng Long, which originated in an infamous restaurant in Hanoi by the name of Chả Cá Lã Vọng. Apparently the original recipe remains a secret but there are many versions out there to be found and, comparing a number of these, it is evident that the essence of the dish is captured by its two principal flavours, turmeric and dill. These are ably assisted by just a few ubiquitous additions in the guise of fish sauce, ginger and garlic and spring onions. Some toasted nuts finish off the small cohort of flavours and textures. One finds there is also broad consensus about the array of accompaniments especially those of rice vermicelli noodles and a dipping sauce.
By all accounts the authentic dipping sauce for this dish is one called Mắm Nêm, a fermented anchovy sauce more akin to shrimp paste than fish sauce, and pungent to the point of unpopularity. However, many recipes also propose the use of Nước Chấm, a lighter, more fragrant number and given we can't find out the authentic recipe for the main dish there's no compulsion to agonise over the authentic accompaniment - Nước Chấm works superbly.
This is a fabulous way of using my favourite underrated (and very reasonably-priced) fish, gurnard. It has robust enough a flavour of its own to stand up to the various seasonings and herbs and a texture which ensures it remains in satisfying meaty chunks. Fillets from a large fish are ideal as they can be more easily trimmed of excess bones, probably the main factor that thwarts gurnard's wider popularity. You can, of course use other fish, such as cod or pollack, but their flakiness will tend to cause them to break up during cooking. Dover sole and grey mullet will hold their form better noting that the latter is fuller of flavour.
For as long as I have been cooking and eating fish, this dish has instantly made it's way into my top ten.
The trick with the cooking of this dish is to get the temperature of the oil right for frying the fish. Too low a heat and the fish pieces won't brown, too high a heat and the garlic and ginger in the marinade will burn. It's difficult to advise on precise temperatures because hobs vary so widely in their performance, but somewhere between medium and medium-high heat should be a reasonable guide.
You can't use too much dill in this recipe but you can use too little, so if in doubt, err on the side of generosity.
Vietnamese-Style Fish with Turmeric and Dill
Ingredients (Serves 2)
350-400g skinned fillets of gurnard, cut into 1½" pieces
1-2 garlic cloves, peeled and coarsely chopped
2cm piece of ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
½ tsp turmeric
1½ tbsp fish sauce
Freshly ground black pepper
Ground nut or other cooking oil
4-6 spring onions, cut on the diagonal into 2cm pieces
1 tbsp coarsely chopped toasted peanuts (see Note)
Dill sprigs, a handful, without too much stalk
1-2 tbsp picked dill leaves
Sliced red chilli, to garnish (optional)
Rice vermicelli noodles, prepared according to pack instructions
Mint and coriander leaves, torn
Thai basil leaves, torn (if available)
Coarsely chopped toasted peanuts (see Note)
Chilli paste, e.g. Sambal Oeleck (optional)
Nước Chấm dipping sauce (see Note)
Pound the garlic and ginger to a paste using a pestle and mortar (a little coarse salt helps the process) and put in a bowl with the turmeric, fish sauce and a few good grinds of black pepper. Combine well then add the fish pieces and give them a good coating of this marinade. Cover and leave in the fridge for 30 minutes to a couple of hours.
When ready to cook, heat about 2 tbsp oil in a frying pan (a high-sided one is ideal) to between medium and medium-high. Lift the fish from the marinade (a little clinging to the fish pieces is fine) and fry it for 1-2 minutes each side so that it takes on some brown colour. A minute before the fish is fully cooked add two-thirds of the spring onions, the dill sprigs and the chopped toasted peanuts, and cook for no more than a minute so that the spring onions just soften.
Remove the contents of the pan to a serving plate and garnish with the remaining spring onion, the dill leaves and the sliced red chillies if using.
Serve straight away accompanied with rice vermicelli noodles, mint and coriander leaves, Thai basil leaves (if available), more chopped toasted peanuts, lime wedges, chilli paste (optional) and Nước Chấm dipping sauce (see Note).
Nước Chấm: For 2 servings combine 1 tbsp lime juice, 1 tbsp fish sauce, ½ tbsp caster sugar, 1 finely chopped red bird's eye chilli and 1 small finely chopped garlic clove with 1 tbsp water. Mix well and leave until ready to use.
Toasted Peanuts: Regular salted peanuts can be used. Put them in a sieve over the sink and give them a shake to dislodge the excess salt. Heat a dry frying pan to medium hot then put the nuts in and move them around regularly. When they are ready they will have picked up brown patches, but do keep them moving as they will burn suddenly and quickly. When ready transfer the nuts to a cold plate and allow to cool before using.
"Vietnamese-style fish with turmeric and dill", waitrose.com, accessed 22 August 2020