Finding fresh dill in Manila (or Central Luzon for that matter) during the rainy season is like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack… So I was resigned to wait until the holiday season to take a stab at cooking Cha Ca La Vong at home. But a few days later, while picking up some staples at the SM grocery in Cebu, several packages of fresh dill were just sitting in the chillers, and I bought everything they had, say 100 grams worth or so. I brought the dill to the office in Cebu, rummaged around a freezer for some frozen fish fillets and checked to see if we had powdered turmeric… Soon after, we were experimenting with Cha Ca La Vong in our commissary kitchen. This version was really quite easy to make, and it tasted terrific!
First, finely mince some galanggal or ginger if you don’t have the former ingredient. Smash it up in a mortar and pestle. Slice up some firm white fleshed fish (we used two cream dory fillets, that was the only choice other than bangus in the freezers) but good tilapia fillets or other freshwater fish might do nicely. Place the fish in a bowl, add the smashed ginger, a half cup of plain unsweetened yoghurt or sour cream, half a tablespoon or so of powdered turmeric and some salt and pepper to taste. I added in some fish sauce (thai) only because we didn’t have the guinamos-y, greyish fish or shrimp paste that is probably closer to the original ingredient used in Vietnam. Let this all marinate for a couple of hours, covered and in the fridge.
A word on authenticity. I believe the original dish is made with a by now, rather rare and expensive fresh water river fish. It is also suggested in some books and on-line sources that instead of yoghurt, the Vietnamese use a form of fermented rice to give the dish that creamy slightly funky dimension. And the fish sauce is ideally of the murkier, seriously pungent variety rather than refined fish sauce or nuoc nam. Not sure if it’s best to use fresh turmeric rather than powdered, but many recipes seem to use the powdered form. At any rate, my numerous substitutions non-withstanding, it is the end product that matters when all is said and done, knowing that this isn’t quite totally authentic… :)
When you are ready to cook and eat, set a medium to large sized saute pan on medium heat, add more lard or vegetable oil than you think is necessary, say 3/4 of a cup or so, then dredge the fish in some fine rice flour (or all-purpose flour) and saute for a few minutes until just cooked and it takes on a nice sunny rich color. For me, the lard added another dimension of flavor that vegetable oil will not provide.
Add in your shredded spring or green onions, lots of dill and I added a bit of coriander as well.
The dish is strikingly colorful, fragrant and appealing…
The added herbs wilt quickly, retaining their vibrant green color. Take the pan off the heat and serve immediately with some rice noodles on the side (previously cooked, served at room temperature), and a bowl of fish sauce/lime juice/sugar/ water and a bit of chilies. Throw in some chopped up peanuts as well.
My fish to herb ratio was higher than the dish we tasted in Hanoi, and I did that on purpose as I felt perhaps a bit shortchanged at the restaurant with just a few pieces of fish and just so many darned herbs… :) This easily served 8, with other dishes at that lunch meal. All the folks in our Cebu office, who have never had this dish before and some of whom aren’t the most adventurous eaters at all, wiped out this dish in record time. I think the mixture of fish, herbs, rice noodles and sauce and a little crunch of peanut and a little heat from the chilies was just an explosive mouthful of flavor. Will be doing this again when dill returns to Manila markets. Definitely doing this again…