Monday, 28 August 2017

 Food Safari with Maeve O"Meara of SBS : Cha ca revisited
Five years later, and so much water under the bridge but late is still better than never.
I will slowly post my memories of sights and tastes from New York/ WashingtonDC/ Virginia/Florida/ Minnesota/ Montreal /Quebec/ Chong Ching/ Wuhu/Yellow Mountain and the traditional and modern Pottery kilns /Hangzhou/ShangHai/Hong Kong/Hanoi/ Ho chi Minh City/ Da Nang/ Hoi An / Ha Long Bay/ Tokyo/Kyoto/ The Japanese Art Islands with Athol and Yoshiko and friends from Swan Hill and Japan and my latest sojourn through the Provence with a short stay in Amsterdam watching and tasting spit roasted wild piglets. in Durance Aquitain, a village with a population of 280 persons.  among family and friends of the Bardet FamilyIt was an impressive experience 
I will start with my latest event since coming back from the Provence
the filming of  Cha ca La Vong for SBS Food Safari program.
Earlier this year I got an email from Georgie looking for a Vietnamese who can speak English well to make Cha Ca La Vong for Food Safari with Maeve O"Meara, the Queen of Food Safari. Maeve was mobbed by the shoppers at Queen Victoria Market where I was to purchase the fish for this recipes. As soon as Maeve appears she was selffied with hundreds of shoppers and the opposite fisherman did a rowdy performance for Maeve with octopuses and barramundi. The director insisted on adhering to the traditional recipes including using lard for marinating and frying and he is right the flavour is richer and the texture is velvety smooth. We bought the lard from the Polish Deli in the market and the director was delighted at the sight of organic dill not wrapped in plastic. And to grill and fry the fish at the table , we bought a genuine Vietnamese metal clad terracotta stove with Hanoi style grill frames from Thuy my friend from Hanoi, now live and works in Melbourne, and bags of Safari Charcoal When we came back to Kensington to the location in the suburb, where Thuy and Michael had set up everything ready and I told Maeve the following story:
Chả Cá Lã Vọng :
Lien Yeomans

“Cha Ca“ has been one of the iconic dishes of Hanoi for the last 130 years. It was the result of an experiment with a special fish given to a Mr Doan of 14 Hang Son Street Hanoi in the 1890s.
During that time, Mr Doan participated in the struggle against the French. He used his shop front house as a safe place for members of the Nationalist movement to meet.
The family made enough to live  and to support Mr Doan’s comrades  by running a noodle pork (bun cha) shop in the front, the pork then was marinated in turmeric, galangal, shallot, prawn paste, fish sauce, fermented rice ...nowaday the pork for bun cha is simply marinated in fish sauce, burnt sugar water (nuoc hang), shallots, pepper.  Recently this dish was made known world wide by President Obama.
When Mr Doan was  given the Lang fish,  a fresh waterfish with fatty yellow flesh. It was perfect for grilling, so Mr Doan’s family decided to replace the pork with the fish using the same marinating ingredients but adding dill to it. The result was so spectacular successful and more delicious that they used the Lang fish instead of the pork from then on for the shop and called it  “Cha Ca” .

And “La Vong?” (The Fishermen’s God)
But soon, the French arrested  Mr Doan and  sent  him to Thai Nguyen jail where he and the jailer became good friends. Whenever the jailer went to Hanoi he stayed with Mr Doan’s family and when Mrs Doan visited her husband , the jailer let them have some privacy. As a result they had a little girl.
A few years later, Mr Doan was released from jail. He returned to Hanoi just in time for the mid Autumn Festival for children and Mr Doan took his daughter out to buy her a toy. his daughter loved the statue of La Vong , the fishermen’s god, so Mr Doan bought her the statue and it was proudly displayed in the front counter of the shop,  since then the shop was refered to as “Cha Ca La Vong”

Cha Ca la Vong  became so well known that Hang Son street was changed to Pho La Vong. Now it is known as Pho Cha Ca.

The preparation of Cha Ca is elaborate but the etiquette of eating cha ca is equally important.
Since Ca lang is best during the winter month and the diner cooks it at the table. Therefore this dish is more popular during the cooler time  and it is known as a conversational dish.  To keep one’s  breath fresh, roasted peanuts and rice wine are served as refresher.
 A special dipping sauce flavoured with a  few drops of essence of “ca cuong” (Mangdana is the artificial version of ca cuong) also helps to divert  any fishy smell.

The fish has to be cleaned, skinned, filetted  and sliced into even pieces  They are then marinated in a mixture of ingredients including turmeric, galangal, dill, shallot, fermented rice (me) Fish sauce, prawn paste, pork fat for 2 hours Then the fish is threaded onto bamboo sticks to be grilled only until partly cooked.
At the table, the oil in the frying pan on the portable gas burner, has to be sizzling hot so when the diner puts the dill and green shallots in they wilt quickly. The wilted dill and shallots  is plated up  as one of the condiments.. Before recooking the fish each diner assembles a small bundle of rice noodle (bun con) a little wilted dill and shallot , a mixture of fresh herbs in their bowl; the fish cooked in the same frying pan and then  dipped in the sauce before topping it on all the condiments in the bnowl taste the magic harmony of taste of all the ingredients
A few roasted peanuts followed by a sip of rice wine would keep the conversation going and becoming  more lively as time goes by.

As Vietnam opens its door again to the world , tourism has become the one of the most important local industries . There is no shortage of guide books to Vietnam and Cha ca La Vong is mentioned  and reccommended as  one of the ”must do” experience for every visitors .
As a result, cha ca shops mushroomed up every where in Vietnam as well as overseas
But none of the cha ca shops and even the original cha ca La Vong can offer the real authentic  eperience of this dish any more
The reasons is simple : it is now  mass produced  for customers in a hurry.
The natural lang fish is becoming a rarity, therefore  snakehead fishes –ca qua in the North and ca loc in the South-  are used in Vietnam and mainly Cat fish is used in Vietnamese restaurants overseas . Since the snakehead is not as fatty as the lang fish, excessive oil and fat is used  to recooked the fish at the table to replace the natural fat in the lang fish itself; but this kills the subtle taste of the dish and also makes it too oily.
Half of the pleasure of eating out depends on the service and the attitude of the staff.  Unfortunately this half is sadly missing in the majority  of cha ca shops, especially at the original Cha ca La Vong.

Lien Yeomans’s Cha Ca
Before  I offered this dish at my restaurant The Green Papaya in Brisbane, I did many research trips to Vietnam, read books by Vietnamese cultural food writers like Thach Lam, Vu Bang, Hoang Dao Thuy and others. I ate a few times at the original Cha Ca La Vong from 1990 – and I also tried Cha ca Thang Long in Ho Chi Minh City . I studied the recipes from various sources including that of , my wise cousin Trinh Thi Nhan, a born and bred in Hanoi .
There is a rumour that the secret ingredient that  makes this dish really special is a little dog fat in the marinade, when grilling the fat burnt releasing a delicious aroma. But it is only a rumour!
After many different tests this is my own recipes for Grilled turmeric fish noodle used by the chefs of the Green Papaya.:
The fish I use is the rock or pink Ling, a cold water fish. Its flesh is firm and fairly fat. I do not twice cook the fish
I use lemon juice instead of fermented rice, olive oil instead of pork fat and I use whole fresh turmeric and galangal instead of just juice.
I use LKK fine shrimp paste and Red Boat fish sauce.
Fresh dill is absolutely vital and  not replaceable
The fish can be grilled or shallow fried.

Ingredients :
1kg                  ling fish filet, cleaned, towel dried, cut into even piece 4cmx3c
1tbspn           fish sauce
1tspn              fine shrimp paste
1tbspn           finely chopped dill
1tspn              freshly ground pepper
Extra oil for brushing before grilling or shallow fry
1tbspn           finely chopped green shallot
1tbspn            finely chopped golden shallot
2tbspns          chopped dill
1tbspn            finely chopped galangal
1tbspn            finely chopped turmeric or 1tspn turmeric powder
1tspn              ground pepper
100ml             fresh juiced lemon
100ml            oil or lard
50ml              fish sauce
1tbspn          fine shrimps paste
Blend  the ingredients above together to mix into a fine creamy marinade (a blender is best)
1packet          rice sticks
 cooked in boiling water, drained well
100g               dill cut into 2cm long
100g               green part of shallot cut into 2cm long
50ml               oil or lar
! cup                each of coriander leaves, mint leaves, dill
1cup               white part of shallot split into thin strips.
100ml             fresh lemon juice     
 50g                fine shrimp paste
10ml               strong white spirit: vodka, gin, rice wine, sake
1tspns           finely minced chili
a few drops    mangdana essence or ca cuong
Freshly roasted peanuts
Rice wine or sake
1.     Season fish piece with fish sauce, shrimp paste, pepper and dill
2.     Blend marinade ingredients into a creamy sauce
3.     Marinate the fish with the marinade for at least 1 hour then arrange fish pieces in 1 layer in a baking dish kept covered in refrigerator
4.     Cook and drain the rice stick.
5.     Wilted green shallot and dill
6.     Pick and wash all the herbs
7.     Roast raw peeled  peanuts in oven at 150C for 20minutes
8.     Mix sauce
Pre heat oven and grill to 250C
Place baking tray in the middle rack, remove fish as soon as it is cooked and plate fish on a plate
Plate noodle with wilted dill on top
Arrange all condiments nicely on the table including sauce

Table setting :
Each guest has:
 A rice bowl with under plate, porcelain  spoon and chopsticks, individual sauce bowl, peanut bowl, rice wine cup,  serviette.

 We followed the recipes and when the fish were grilled over the charcoal, as it partly cooked it had the most amazing turmeric colour and the pattern on the grill frame made nice patterns on the fish.
We cooked the dill and shallots and the fish in hot lard , the aroma was amazing 
maeve and I tried our fist bite with all the condiments , refreshing our palate with freshly roasted peanuts and a little sake , (we could not buy good Vietnamese rice wine here). And I know it was a success when Maeve pronounced happily :" This is much better than Hanoi ".
We all sit down and have a proper taste even the crew loved it. and the director said" the sauce is addictive and I can't understand that none of the Vietnamese restaurants offers this dish, but they do just in another unrecognised reinvention of their own.

 With SBS Food Safari Crew and Thuy after the filming of Cha Ca 

The tasting: "It is better than Hanoi" pronounced Maeve

The filming of Cha: Maeve, the camera man and the director  

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