• Chả cá lã vong: the dish so popular a street is named after it. (Khanh Nguyen)Source: Khanh Nguyen
Pad Thai? Banh mi? Mud crab? Sunda's Khanh Nguyen covered it in pastry during lockdown. With chả cá lã vong, though, it's personal.
By
Lee Tran Lam

18 Sep 2020 - 1:05 PM  UPDATED 22 Sep 2020 - 11:26 PM

"In Vietnam, it's so popular that they named a street after this dish," says chef Khanh Nguyen, who runs modern Southeast Asian restaurant Sunda in Melbourne.  

He's talking about chả cá lã vong: turmeric-flavoured fish that's served with vermicelli, fresh herbs and other accompaniments. It was invented more than a century ago in Hanoi's old quarter by a restaurant called Chả Cá Lã Vong. The eatery was known as a safe house for dissidents resisting French colonial rule and it's still open today.

Author Patricia Schultz named it as one of 1,000 Places To See Before You Die in her book by the same name. If you head there, you won't be wracked by the paradox of choice – the Hanoi specialty is the only dish on the menu.

Walk down Chả Cá Street and you'll get a fragrant preview of the dish's key ingredients (the pungent fermented anchovy, the sharp scent of dill) as you pass the many businesses specialising in the staple. But for Nguyen, there was only one restaurant worth the trip: the original.

"I only went to the one place that everyone recommended, because that's the place," he says.

Even though Chả Cá Lã Vong is a famous destination, finding it is tricky: in Hanoi, there are many copycat restaurants and they even trade under the same name of the business they're knocking off – just to make things even more confusing.  

"So, it's up to you to figure out which one’s the real one," says Nguyen. And if the restaurants aren't busy, it's even harder to identify the correct one.

"Fifteen minutes later, the restaurant next to [where I'm eating] is packed out and I'm like, 'I went to the wrong one!'"

But when Nguyen was growing up in Sydney, there was no danger of eating the wrong chả cá lã vong. It was a special-occasion dish that his grandmother would make, and it was always a sure thing that it'd be great.

"She knew me and my brother absolutely loved it," he says.

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Typically, the fish is steeped in a turmeric marinade and fried in a pan with spring onion and dill. However, his grandmother would instead light up the charcoal and let the fish cook over the smoky heat.

His grandmother also fried the spring onion and dill in butter. "Wow, when I was old enough to know more about cooking, I was like 'damn, she's got some tricks up her sleeve!'"

She would serve the fish with a fermented anchovy and pineapple dressing, which can be tricky to get right. When his mother first made it, she "kind of went too hard on the anchovy, it was super funky", he says.

For his older aunties, the punchiness of the anchovy dressing was something they loved. As a boy, he found it a little harder to handle. "Eventually I grew to love it as well."

When chả cá lã vong was served at the table, it was presented with individual bowls of the dressing, herbs, roasted peanuts, fried shallots and lettuce. Each diner was supposed to balance the flavours by picking the different elements from several bowls ­– you're meant to customise each bite.

"I'm like, 'nah. I'm not wasting time. I'm gonna make one [giant] bowl and eat it'." He'd stack all the ingredients in the largest bowl available. His grandmother caught on: she'd always set the table and save the biggest bowls for Nguyen and his brother.

"When I was old enough to know more about cooking, I was like 'damn, she's got some tricks up her sleeve!'"

You can retrace the chef's career with serves of chả cá lã vong, too.

The first time he made the dish himself was 11 years ago, during his first job at Sydney's Red Lantern.

The next occasion was over a decade later, when Nguyen began running his own restaurant, Sunda.

"It's a dish you don't really find in restaurants in Melbourne or Australia. Annam had a version of it on its menu, which was amazing," he says. "It's a dish that you don't really come by much."

But one of his chefs, inspired by a trip to Vietnam, wanted to know if Nguyen knew how to make chả cá lã vong. "By then, it was 10, 11 years ago since I made it last," he says.

So when he cooked it at Sunda, for a staff meal, he was "nervous" about the reaction.

His staff had previously "been against" the idea of putting pineapple in savoury dishes – so the odds that they'd like the dressing were already low. He also worried the fermented anchovy might be too funky, like it had been on his childhood tastebuds.

"But everyone ended up absolutely loving it," he says. He continued the tradition of loading the dish up in one big bowl, instead of divided into many separate ones.

"I made everyone eat a giant bowl, to be honest," he says. "I set up the table with giant bowls for everyone."

Sunda's head chef Khanh Nguyen has got it covered in pastry during lockdown.

Now, people can learn how to make it via the chef's online cooking lesson on 25 September. It begins at 6.30pm on the Sunda EXP Instagram account, the takeaway business he launched during lockdown.

Not only can you channel Hanoi's Chả Cá Street at this class – but the chef is merging the traditional recipe with his favourite lockdown activity: wrapping food in pastry.

He's applied this en croute technique to many dishes recently: banh mi, pad Thai and a beef short rib decorated with striking Day of the Dead flourishes. To make it this colourful, he applied black vegetable ash and a deep red that came from annatto seeds cooked in water.

Lockdown has sparked many creative riffs on this cooking style. 

"I was driving around doing deliveries and I was thinking, I'd like to wrap a crab in pastry, because it'd be nice for it to steam up in its own juices," he says.

"I thought it'd be as simple as wrapping the crab in pastry and pressing it down so you'd get an imprint of the crab." But it actually looked nothing like the crustacean once encased in dough, so he spent two hours meticulously decorating it to make it resemble the sea creature again.

A few days later, he decided to cook chicken en croute. "And that took just as long," he says.

Because he decorates it intuitively – there are no prior sketches or plans – "sometimes after you put all the decorations on it and you think, it doesn't look that good, I'll take it all off and do it again."

His most experimental feat so far has been the pastry-wrapped pad Thai, which had the added challenge of an egg needing to be slow-cooked in between the noodles and sprouts. Initially, he thought he'd stuffed it up – but on the second slice, "the egg was super runny and perfect".

As for chả cá lã vong, that works en croute, because the crispy pastry and the fish gently cooking inside it make for a perfect combination.

He presents it with a turmeric tartare sauce – so the whole thing feels like a Vietnamese take on fish and chips.

People signing up for the class will also get a cooking kit that includes the ingredients, temperature probe and a tableware discount to use at The Good Plate, an organisation that creates work opportunities for refugees.

There'll be a cutting tool, too, so people needn't spend hours scouring eBay for the best decorating gadgets (as Nguyen once did after a 16-hour shift, meaning he was awake for 24 hours by the time he'd scored his online goods).

"I think it's going to be pretty exciting for most home cooks, because they probably haven't done something like this," he says.

You can also try a home-style version of the dish (unwrapped) using the recipe below. And if you want to channel the chef’s childhood memories of eating chả cá lã vong, serve it in the biggest bowl possible. 

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @leetranlam and Instagram @leetranlam.


Khanh Nguyen's Hanoi turmeric-marinated fish, vermicelli noodles and herb salad           

Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 2 red Asian shallots, eschalot or red onion
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 20 g fresh turmeric
  • 20 g ginger
  • 20 g galangal
  • 2 tbsp fish sauce
  • 2 tbsp lime juice
  • 1 tbsp fermented anchovy sauce (mam nem)
  • 4 tbsp ghee
  • 1 tsp caster sugar
  • 200 ml coconut milk
  • 1 tbsp turmeric powder

Fish

  • 300 g kingfish fillets, skin on
  • 60 g unsalted butter
  • ½ bunch dill, cut into 2.5cm batons
  • ½ bunch spring onions, cut into 2.5cm batons
  • Stir-fried greens, to serve

Fermented anchovy and pineapple dressing

  • 50 ml pineapple juice
  • 50 g fish sauce
  • 50 g caster sugar
  • 40 g rice vinegar
  • 40 g lime juice
  • 20 g fermented anchovy sauce (mam nem)
  • 15 g Vietnamese pickled chilli
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped

Vermicelli and herb salad

  • 230 g dry vermicelli noodles
  • 1 head  baby cos lettuce
  • ½ bunch shiso
  • ½ bunch mint
  • ½ bunch Vietnamese mint
  • ½ bunch coriander

Garnish

  • 2 tbsp fried shallots
  • 2 tbsp roasted peanuts, crushed

1. Combine all the marinade ingredients in a food processor or a mortar and pestle and blend or pound until a fine paste is formed.
2. Slather the fish with the paste and allow to marinate for at least 2 hours before cooking.
3. In a pan on medium to high heat, fry the fish for 3 minutes on each side until beautifully caramelised. Remove fish from pan and set aside.
4. To make the dressing, combine all ingredients in a bowl and whisk until sugar has dissolved.
5. Use the same pan as before and place on high heat. Add butter and heat until melted and frothing. Add spring onion and dill and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Once fried, add two tablespoons of the pineapple and anchovy dressing and fry for a further 30 seconds. Top the fish with the stir-fried greens.
6. To make the vermicelli and herb salad, bring a large pot of water to the boil. Once boiling, remove the vermicelli from the packaging and place into the water. Bring the water back up to the boil then turn off the heat.
7. Cover with a lid and set a 5-minute timer. After 5 minutes, strain the noodles and discard the water
8. Give the noodles a light rinse under running water then allow to drain.
9. Wash the baby cos lettuce and roughly chop into large chunks.
10. For the herbs, pick the leaves and roughly chop. Combine the lettuce with the herbs, then set aside until ready to use.
11.  Assemble the dish. The way my family loves to enjoy this dish is have each of the different components in the middle of the table in separate bowls. Everyone makes their own bowl and adjusts the garnishes (including the shallots and nuts) to their own personal preference.

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