This unique and ravishing feast is one of the top fish meals we have ever had in our lives. That covers a lot of ground and many years of cooking and a life lived fishing on the ocean. The story begins with a restaurant in Hanoi that is legendary. It serves only one dish… this dish… Cha Ca La Vong, which is Turmeric Fish with Dill.
This is also the name of that restaurant. There is no menu. They have been serving this single dish for many many years. This feast has become a legend around the world.
This long awaited post of ours is, to our best knowledge, pretty close to what they serve. That is our quest. That’s the entire reason we began this adventure many years ago, to honor the feasts of the world and the people who created them, by making them in our wild savory kitchen. It is how we attempt to know them, to join hands as home cooks. As people. We have traveled to many of the places we write about but the interesting thing is that we know these cultures, countries, tribes, peoples, communities, neighborhoods and families best by cooking their meals. We are humbled by their gravitas and traditions. We only wish to become members of the culinary world by lifting up home cooks to their proper place of honor.
2 pounds fish, cut into 2 inch chunks (to keep the fish from breaking up in the cooking process, it’s important to use a firm, thick, white fleshed mild tasting fish filets, like Cod, Ling Cod, Halibut, Sea Bass, Walleye, Catfish or Grouper)
6 to 8 oz. Vermicelli rice noodles, sometimes called Thai rice sticks, generally 2 large bunches is the right amount (we use Three Ladies Brand and buy it in 2 pound packages on Amazon)
1/2 cup unsalted roasted peanuts
1 large bunch fresh dill, cut into big 1 inch pieces
1 very large or 2 small sweet onions, sliced thinly
1/4 cup peanut oil, to fry the fish, 2 tablespoons to fry the onions (this feast is magical for many reasons, but one of the main tastes is the intensely flavored oils, which infuse the noodles with wonderfulness)
1 teaspoon salt, sprinkled on both sides of the fish chunks
6 scallions, trimmed and cut into 1 inch chunks
1/2 cup Thai basil, cut into large 1 inch pieces
1/2 cup mint, cut into large 1 inch pieces
1/2 cup cilantro, cut into large 1 inch pieces
1 head of Butter Lettuce
Ingredients for Marinade
2 pieces of fresh turmeric (they are usually about 2 inches long each), peeled and cut into thin coins
2 inches galangal, peeled and cut into thin coins
3 cloves garlic
1 to 2 inches fresh ginger, (depending on thickness), cut into thin coins
1 teaspoon dried turmeric, we grind the roots ourself, the powder is much more powerful (if you grind them yourself, be careful, they are very hard and could chip the inside of the spice grinder, so we break them up in the mortar and pestle into small pieces and THEN grind them)
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 tablespoon cooking oil (we use coconut oil)
Ingredients for Dipping Sauce
1/4 cup fish sauce (we use Red Boat brand)
3 cloves garlic, crushed
2 teaspoons dried red chile flakes (we use Thai Bird’s Eye or Indian chilies)
1/2 cup lime juice (set aside 2 tablespoons of this lime juice for the fish marinade)
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup already reduced rich chicken broth
Using a small food processor, grind the fresh turmeric, powdered turmeric, garlic, galangal, ginger, lime juice and oil into a paste. (After you remove the paste, wash the plastic container on the food processor right away, so the turmeric doesn’t stain.) Salt the fish on both main sides and apply a layer of marinade to all sides of the fish chunks, and pour on the 2 tablespoons of lime juice. Allow the fish to marinate in a bowl at room temperature for an hour or so, while you gather the rest of the ingredients for this feast.
To make your Dipping Sauce, mix together all the ingredients, whisk well and set aside.
Boil two quarts of water, add the rice noodles and simmer for eight minutes. Strain, rinse with cold water, shake to loosen and set aside.
Separate the Butter Lettuce leaves, rinse and allow to drip dry.
In a small pan, on low to medium heat, slowly heat the peanuts until they are slightly seared and aromatic. Remove them from the heat and allow to cool, chopping them into pieces.
Using a 12 inch fry pan, cast iron is best for this feast, warm the oil on high heat and just as it begins to smoke, add the fish. Sprinkle on most of the remaining red chili flakes and sear on high heat for about 2 minutes. Flip them gently over, apply the last of the chili flakes and sear until both sides are toasty. Remove the fish filets from the heat and set aside.
With the heat back down to medium, add the last 2 tablespoons of oil and the onions, fry until they are just browned. Add the garlic and the scallions, stir together for 2 minutes. Add back the fish and the dill, allowing all the ingredients to be coated with the aromatic oil until slightly glossy, about 2 minutes. Sprinkle on the seared peanuts and remove from the heat.
Place vermicelli in the bottom of each diner’s bowl, and then add equal portions of the fish and all the ingredients in the pan, making sure that the oils are infused into the noodles.
Each diner can now add the three herbs… cilantro, Thai basil and mint… to their bowls, and pouring in the desired amount of Dipping Sauce.
Or, for the traditional Vietnamese folks, they may want to place the fish and the onions into a leaf of the Butter Lettuce, wrapping them up together, and then dipping into the sauce.
Either way, this unique and extraordinary feast should be on the bucket list of every world traveler, and every citizen of the culinary world.