Chả Cá Lã Vọng (also known as Chả Cá Thăng Long and Chả Cá Hà Nội) is a famous dish from Hanoi. Like other great Vietnamese dishes, this recipe is all about the complex interplay and balance of flavors, textures and colors- earthy, salty, savory, bright, and fresh; yellow, green, and white; tender and crunchy. These seemingly conflicting elements somehow come together into a single dish that’s nothing short of spectacular.
First, fish fillets (use catfish or other mild, firm white fish) are marinated in an earthy turmeric, ginger, garlic, and fish sauce marinade. Then, the fish is seared until crisp and golden, and is served over a bed of gently wilted green chives, scallions, and dill (LOTS of dill), with tender white rice noodles on the side. Diners then garnish the dish to their own tastes, sprinkling on chopped toasted peanuts, sliced red chilies, fragrant fresh basil and cilantro and sour-savory-spicy-sweet dipping sauce from bowls served on the side.
This recipe makes four servings.
- 1¼-inch piece of fresh turmeric, peeled and roughly chopped (or 2 teaspoons ground turmeric)
- ½-inch piece of galangal, peeled and roughly chopped
- ½-inch piece of ginger root, peeled and roughly chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- a generous pinch of ground white pepper
- 1 pound 4 ounce catfish fillets, cut into bite-size pieces (cod, pollock, and skinless monkfish fillets also work well)
- 6½ ounces dried rice vermicelli
- 3 tablespoons peanut oil
- 1 small bunch of dill, trimmed (fronds only, no stems)
- 10 scallions, cut into 2½-inch pieces and sliced
- small handful chives, cut into 2-inch segments (preferably Chinese chives)
- ⅓ cup raw skinless peanuts
- 1 small handful of Thai basil leaves
- 1 small handful of cilantro leaves
- 2 red chilies, seeded and sliced (optional)
- Nước Chấm dipping sauce
- Put the fresh turmeric (if using), galangal, ginger, and garlic in a mortar or a food processor and blend to a smooth paste (I recommend wearing kitchen gloves if you’re working with fresh turmeric to prevent your fingers from turning bright yellow). Transfer to a large bowl, add the ground turmeric (if using), and combine with the fish sauce, sugar, and ground pepper. Tip the fish into the bowl and toss until each piece of fish is well coated in the paste. Cover with plastic wrap and leave to marinate at room temperature for about 30 minutes.
- Heat a skillet over medium-high heat, then add the peanuts and dry-roast until fragrant and starting to brown. Remove from the heat, roughly chop, and set aside.
- Bring a saucepan of water to a boil and cook the rice vermicelli 2 o 3 minutes until softened. Drain, refresh under cold running water, pat dry with paper towel and divide into four individual serving bowls.
- Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the marinated fish and fry, stirring occasionally, 6 to 7 minutes until crisp, golden brown and cooked through. Add the dill, scallions, and chives. Toss and cook for a few seconds longer until wilted. Remove from the heat and transfer to a serving dish.
- Transfer the bowls of noodles, accompaniments, and fish to the table, and let your diners assemble their meal to their own liking.
Cook’s Note: I’ve used catfish fillets in this recipe, which are easier to find in most grocery stores and fish markets. However, Chả Cá Lã Vọng is traditionally made using snakehead (called cá lóc, cá quả, or cá chuối in Vietnamese), which is prized in Asian cooking for its firm, tender white meat that holds up well in clay pot dishes and pickled preparations. However, snakehead is considered an invasive species here in the States, where it’s been nicknamed “Fishzilla” and “Frankenfish”, and even been the subject of a few cheesy horror films (the Sci-Fi Channel’s made three: “Snakehead Terror“, “Frankenfish“, and “Swarm of the Snakehead“). Although it’s been illegal to possess a live snakehead in many U.S. states since 2002, they’ve mostly settled into our river ecosystems these days, and have begun popping up on a few menus as local chefs have begun promoting eating snakehead as a way to help manage their numbers. If you happen to live in an area where snakeheads have become established, you may occasionally see them in your local fish market, or if you’ve got a friend who’s an avid angler, you may be able to convince them to bring you back some snakehead fillets from their next fishing trip.
Typically, chả cá is served with mắm nêm—a very pungent, fermented anchovy sauce. It’s something of an acquired taste (even for some Vietnamese people), so I serve chả cá with a standard nước chấm which is much milder in comparison.
last updated August 17, 2023