Vietnamese turmeric fish with noodles (Cha Ca La Vong) is a delicious and iconic dish of Hanoi. Chunks of flavorful fish are plated on a bed of aromatic green scallions and dill, boosting a unique dining experience.
Overview of Vietnamese turmeric fish with noodles (Cha Ca La Vong)
An iconic dish of Hanoi
Besides pho noodle soup, Cha Ca La Vong and Bun Thang are two other iconic dishes that represent the elegance and complexity of Hanoi cuisine. The official names of this dish are Cha Ca or Cha Ca Hanoi. It features grilled fish that has been marinated with turmeric, tossed with sautéed scallions and dills, and served with vermicelli noodles, roasted peanuts and dipping sauce. Visually, the dish looks stunning with beautiful golden fish and green herbs. In terms of taste, it has a perfect combination of sweet, salty, sour and umami. Turmeric gives the fish not only a bright yellow color but also a mild earthy flavor. A variety of textures from the ingredients also makes eating Cha Ca fun and exciting.
If you visit Hanoi, there is no doubt that Cha Ca La Vong is a must-not-miss dish. There are a number of restaurants specialized in serving this dish. The most famous one also has the name of Cha Ca La Vong, and some other popular ones are Cha Ca Thang Long and Cha Ca Anh Vu. Since it’s a Northern Vietnamese dish, it’s not easy to find a restaurant serving this dish in the U.S. I remember that several Vietnamese restaurants in London have Cha Ca on their menu. Anyway, don’t worry because you can make it in your kitchen. We’ll get to how to cook it soon :).
A unique dining experience
Traditionally, Cha Ca is finished at the dining table. The restaurants would bring out grilled fish, fresh scallions, dills, noodles, peanuts and dipping sauce. Diners would be provided a portable gas stove and a skillet in which they would fry/sauté scallions and dills and then add grilled fish, mix and finish cooking. After that, each person would put some vermicelli noodles in their bowl and top with cooked scallions, dills and fish which are still hot right off the skillet.
How to cook Vietnamese turmeric fish with noodles (Cha Ca La Vong)
The main ingredients for this dish are fish, scallions, dills, turmeric marinade, vermicelli noodles, roasted peanuts and dipping sauce.
To make Vietnamese turmeric fish, you should use fillets of fairly firm white fish. Over the years, we have tried making it with cod, halibut, catfish, grouper, and monkfish. They are all great choices, but the best one is monkfish thanks to its texture. The texture is somewhat like lobster with the right amount of softness. The one I like the least is cod because it’s a bit too delicate when fully cooked.
My marinade consists of turmeric powder, shallot, garlic, galangal, fish sauce and shrimp paste. In Vietnam, one more ingredient included in the marinade is me (fermented rice) which is slightly sour. It’s hard to find this ingredient in the U.S. In her “Into the Vietnamese Kitchen” cookbook, Andrea Nguyen suggests using sour cream and Luke Nguyen uses yogurt in his “The Food of Vietnam” cookbook. Honestly, I think it’s okay to omit this ingredient because the dipping sauce will provide the sourness to the dish. Another reason is I try to avoid dairy unless it’s absolutely needed. You can add 1-2 tablespoons of sour cream or yogurt to the marinade for an even more authentic taste :).
You can find galangal and shrimp paste at Asian grocery stores. When shopping for shrimp paste, you should look for the one with the Vietnamese translation as “mam tom“. It can also be labeled as shrimp sauce. Shrimp paste has a strong pungent smell, so if you have never used it before, hold your breath before opening the jar. It adds a lot of umami to the dish though, so don’t be afraid to give it a try. If you decide shrimp paste is not for you, just substitute with fish sauce. If you are unable to find galangal, increase the amount of shallot and add a small amount of ginger.
Restaurants in Vietnam usually serve two types of dipping sauce for Cha Ca La Vong. The first one is just the basic sauce from fish sauce, lime juice, and sugar. The second one is a diluted shrimp paste dipping sauce. I admit that I never dare to try the second sauce because it’s really strong and pungent… I apologize for being unable to provide a recipe for a diluted shrimp paste dipping sauce…
It’s easy to cook Vietnamese turmeric fish at home. You just need to marinate the fish and then pan-sear or broil it in the oven. After that, cook the herbs and throw in the fish, mix and all done.
If you have a portable burner, you can try serving it at the table in the same way as at Vietnamese restaurants. If that isn’t an option, just serve the cooked fish and herbs on a plate. I used to do it as at restaurants, but ever since I bought a cast iron fajita plate, I just heat the plate and transfer the cooked fish and herbs there and serve.