WE FOUND OUR WEAKENED FOOTSTEPS AT ITS TURQUOISE COLORED DOORWAY
THE official statement is, that like all other celebratory spirits who paint golden eggs on Easter, play Frank Sinatra on X’mas and wash their faces with Buffalo wings on Superbowl, we the family of forever-festivity, ate tacos on Cinco de Mayo and danced to a whirlpool of margaritas this past Sunday.
But the truth, is actually far more exciting than that. Over the past long weekend, a siege of timely but inconvenient stomach-flu had, and still is, rendering me immobile. Timely, because someone, or something, has got to make me drop this bag of cookies immediately. Inconvenient however… because I realized I have only one thing left in my recipe-reserve for my immobile days.
Yes, I have a recipe-reserve which, on a regular basis, has one or two recipes I keep on the side because it either doesn’t fit into the current flow of posts, or that I’m still deciding its worthiness to share. Relax, this one loudly and clearly belongs in the first category. The thing is, with the previous Thai pork salad and another express Chiangmai noodle on the horizon, this Vietnamese-style fish taco is giving me anxiety that I actually don’t own a passport to either country. But like I said, immobile. So I guess we all have to go on a prolonged Southeast Asian fiesta.
I actually made this a couple weeks ago. The ration behind this recipe – besides the phenomenon that nowadays people seem to be pleased by just about anything that’s put on a tortilla – is to rekindle with one of the fondest food-memory we had on our Vietnam trip six years ago. And believe me, the single fact that we could even remember anything from such trip is an achievement of itself. Because it was a violent, brutal.. disorienting journey written by two human beings who ate beyond their mortal casings were made to withhold, and almost bursted under the blazes of subtropical sun. Five meals-plus a day, numerous snacks in between, a continuous beating under unstoppable, delicious morsels in a stretch of 7 days like an eternal food-coma… I just remember it was hot. I remember I was full… very full, the whole time. I remember collapsing under the resurrecting breezes of our AC-unit inside the hotel room drenched in the perfume of fish sauce and exotic herbs.
Then major, epic memory loss.
There are two permanent stretch marks on my thighs reminiscing this single act of recklessness. Anything beyond that, I have to refer back to the photo album for proof.
But despite clinical memory loss caused by deep food-coma, I couldn’t forget fragments of this event in a million years. The name of the Vietnamese dish is called chả cá. The most notorious among them, is Chả Cá La Vong in Hanoi. The evening was still young, and after five-full days of battling the human limit of food-consumption across Vietnam, we found our weakened footsteps in front of its turquoise-colored doorway leading up to a narrow staircase. I’ll be honest. We had very little will left to fight, and every effort to save appetite-ammo prior to this battle was erased by a little cunning man selling street-side grilled pork-belly. But we marched upward anyways, because we were still in our hardcore-twenties and we ate hardcore. Just when we thought this was going to be a mind-over-body sort of meal, the permeating, impossible aroma of chả cá turned us back, again, into mindless feeding zombies.
The restaurant at first glance, already presented the sign of excellence that they serve one thing and one thing only – chả cá, which is chunks of ling fillets marinated in turmeric, fish sauce and ginger being fried in a shallow pan over coal, then a giant handful of dill and scallion is added to the party which deepens the flavours of the oil. Then you ladle a good spoonful of this bright yellow and green mixture over fresh rice vermicelli, drench the carbs in herby grease and slurp it with more chili fish sauce and crushed peanuts. Bonified food-gasm. Or so is the information I pieced back together based on photographs…
I don’t know how is it that we didn’t tumble down the narrow stairways by the extra gravity-pull due to the mass carried by our stomaches… but I lived to eat another day, recreating chả cá in my own kitchen for a few times now in the past few years. But the meal always ended in regretful burps that freshly made rice vermicelli isn’t even remotely available in most other parts of the world. So one day I thought hey, since everybody is one slippery slope-away from turning cupcakes into taco, why not chả cá, too?
The result leads to only one conclusion. Either chả cá over a bed of Vietnamese herby salsa made with cherry tomatoes, thinly sliced shallots, chopped mints and scallions with fish sauce and lime juice, plus a good squirt of orange chili sambal, will tastes fantastic on just about anything. Or, anything will taste fantastic in taco-form. I don’t know. Could be both.
Makes: 6 ~ 7 small tacos/serves 2 people
The original chả cá consists of a lot more scallions and dill, and a lot more frying oil than this recipe. If you’d like a much more herb-dominated taco, you can increase the scallion/dill ratio accordingly. Most recipes use ling fillet for this dish, which is proven to be a bit exotic where I live so instead, I am using a farmed fish called basa from Vietnam that is relatively common and cheap although controversies of antibiotic and whatnots do exist. You can use any other white and firm fish that isn’t too flaky (meaning that it contains a good amount of oil). Whatever fish you choose, make an effort to be mindful that the ocean isn’t a bottomless bank account we can withdraw from. The other choices listed in the ingredients are said to be in acceptable population by NOAA.
Large red chili is significantly less spicy than small red chili. You can adjust the heat of the sambal to your liking by changing the ratio between these two. You should make the sambal days ahead as the flavour matures and develop through time.
- Chả cá pan-fried fish:
- 9 oz (257 grams) of skinless, firm/white fish-fillet such as basa, black sea bass, pacific halibut or Pacific cod
- 1 1/2 tsp of fish sauce
- 1 tsp of grated ginger
- 1/2 tsp of ground turmeric
- 1/4 tsp of ground white pepper
- 2 tbsp of vegetable oil
- 3 heaping tbsp of chopped dill
- 3 heaping tbsp of chopped scallion
- 1 grated garlic
- Herb salsa:
- 15 cherry tomatoes, diced
- 4 medium-size shallots, finely sliced
- 3 tbsp of chopped cilantro
- 3 tbsp of chopped scallion
- 1 1/2 tbsp of chopped mint
- 1 1/2 tsp of fish sauce + more to adjust
- Juice from 1/2 lime (1 1/2 tbsp)
- Orange red chili sambal:
- 1 large naval orange
- 9 large red chilis (115 grams), diced
- 15 small red chilis (33 grams), diced
- 7 clove of garlic
- 4 tsp of rice vinegar
- 3 tsp of fish sauce + more for adjusting
- 1 1/2 tsp of sugar + more for adjusting
- To serve:
- 14 small (6″ or 15 cm) flour tortilla
- Wedges of lime to serve
To make the orange red chili sambal: (* updated 2014/05/08: forgot to add chilis in the previous instruction, DUH!) Zest 1/2 of the naval orange, then slice off the skin. Cut out each segments from the orange without the fibrous membrane. In a blender, add the orange zest, orange segments, and squeeze all the juice left from the orange. Then add the diced chilis *, garlic, rice vinegar, fish sauce and sugar, and blend until the mixture is smoothly pureed. Transfer to a small pot and cook over medium heat until reduced by 1/3 (it may splatter while simmering, so cover loosely with a lid). Adjust the seasoning with more fish sauce or sugar if needed. Keep in an air-tight container in the fridge for at least 1 day before using.
To make the herb salsa: Cut the cherry tomatoes across in half, and squeeze out the excess juice then cut into dices. Mix together the diced cherry tomatoes, finely sliced shallots, chopped cilantro, chopped scallion, chopped mint, fish sauce and lime juice. Set aside until needed.
To steam the tortilla: Scatter the tortilla on a plate and steam inside a steamer until hot. Turn off the heat and keep the tortilla warm and moist inside the steamer until needed.
To make the Chả cá pan-fried fish: Rinse/clean the fish-fillet under water, then dab/dry thoroughly with a clean kitchen towel (this is especially important if the fish was previously frozen and may release a lot of water). Cut the fish-fillet into 1″ (2.5 cm) squares, then mix with fish sauce, grated ginger, ground turmeric and ground white pepper (you can add 1 tsp of vegetable oil to loosen it up). Let marinate for 30 min to 1 hour (meanwhile you can make the salsa and steam the tortilla).
Heat up a non-stick skillet over high heat with 2 tbsp of vegetable oil. Scatter the marinated fish over the skillet then do not move them. Wait until the bottom is nicely browned/caramelized in peace, then you gently turn them over with a fork. Once both sides are browned and caramelized, the fish should’ve been cooked through. Add the chopped dill and scallion, and grated garlic. Mix and cook for 1 min more, then turn off the heat.
On top of 2 layers of flour tortilla (you can use 1 layer if you prefer), lay a bed of herb salsa then 3 ~ 4 pieces of pan-fried fish. Squeeze the orange chili sambal on top and serve with a few wedges of lime.