Lien’s Cha Ca La Vong on one plate at
Simpatico Restaurant Paddington
Brisbane Special dinner May 2010
Besides pho, Hanoi is also famous for another iconic dish, “Cha Ca La Vong” (La Vong street grilled fish) served with rice vermicelli and a host of special condiments.
The rumour about the secret ingredient of this dish was “dog fat”! But no one really knows the truth, saved for the inventor of this amazing dish.
Originally small branches of the Red River run close to the streets of Hanoi old quarter and people used to catch the special “ca lang”, “ca anh vu” fishes to grill and then dipped them in shrimp paste to eat.
Eventually the enterprise Doan family turned this simple fish dish into the iconic cha ca La Vong as we know today.
Behind this dish are a romantic love story and a fragment of the Vietnamese struggle history against the French colonalisation.
A group of Vietnamese nationalists used to meet at Mr Doan house at Hang Son Street (Paint street) to plot and plan against the French. Eventually, the secret meeting place was discovered, Mr Doan was arrested and imprisoned. He befriended the jailer and offered him accommodation in his family home in Hanoi when the jailer went there for new supplies. In return for this favour, the jailer allowed Mr Doan’s wife to spend time with her husband in his cell. As a result they had a daughter.
Mr Doan was eventually released from prison. On the occasion of the Mid Autumn Children’s Festival, he took his daughter out shopping for toys and she chose the statue of La Vong, the God of fishermen. The statue was displayed in front of their shop and since then his shop was known as Cha ca La Vong. After over a hundred years the Doan family still operates “Cha Ca La Vong”. And since this dish has become so popular that the street is now changed to Cha ca Street.
“Lang” fish or “Anh Vu” fish from the Red River were best during the winter, and they were the most suitable for grilling due to their high content of fat. The fish was filleted and cut into bite size and marinated in galangal, turmeric and lemon juice with fine shrimp paste, fish sauce, pepper, dill and perhaps “dog” fat; then lightly grilled over charcoal fire in bamboo skewers.
On the table, the accompanying ingredients are already arranged including mixed fresh herbs, rice vermicelli, vinegared onion slices, split green shallot, shrimp paste sauce flavoured with “ca cuong” essence (extracted from flat winged beetle ”Ca Cuong”). When the customers sit down, roasted peanuts and rice wine are brought to the table with a portable charcoal stove with skewers of grilled fish and a small frying pan for the customers to refrying the fish with extra dill and shallot as they savour the dish one bite at a time.
This dish is best eaten in winter leisurely over lengthy conversation on any topics of the time. The roasted peanuts and the rice wine are used to prevent fishy breath.
As it spread beyond Hanoi, “Cha Ca La Vong” has taken on many variations, sometimes it is hard to believe it is the same dish.
As for the “Lang” and “Anh Vu” fishes, they are now almost disappeared from the fish market. Both are on the red alert list.
The fish used for this now could be any kind of fishes, in Vietnam it is common to use mudfish (ca loc or ca qua). In Australia I choose the rock ling or pink ling for their firm flesh, they can withstand the marinating and grilling or frying without falling apart.
At my old restaurant, we did not have exhaust canopy over each table so we could not cook at the table; I also knew that if I served the shrimp paste sauce separately some customers would not use it, and for this dish if you left out any accompanying condiments it would not taste the same. So I serve everything on one plate including shrimp paste sauce with ca cuong essence. In the 90s, I got my cousin in Hanoi to supply the restaurant with the genuine “ca cuong” essence, but since this precious insect was put on the red alert list, I had to resource to the artificial “mangdana” essence made in Thailand!
I was not surprised when my customers returning from Hanoi to announce that my Cha ca was better. I knew that they did not eat it with all the condiments provided (foreigners usually avoid eating uncooked greens) and also I knew that they would prefer the alternative dipping sauce offered and avoid the shrimp paste sauce.
Ca cuong is so rare now that the restaurants in Hanoi only use it if the customers agree to pay extra.
I can’t imagine cha ca without these two essentials.