All About Cha Ca

10 May 2018

Talking about Hanoi cuisine, people can easily name a number of iconic dishes such as pho, bun cha, bun thang, banh cuon etc. Among those, cha ca, which is comprised of grilled marinated fish, vermicelli, vegetables and herbs, is a lesser known but equally important and iconic dish to the people living in this ancient city.

There is a legend among Hanoians about the origin of cha ca: during the French colonial period, at a house on Hang Son St., there was a patriotic family dedicated to providing shelter and a hiding place for De Tham revolutionaries. Every time they had guests over, the host would treat them with their specialty: cha ca. Over time, the delicious dish had gain a reputation throughout the city, so the guests helped the family set up a restaurant that doubled as a home and a gathering place for their friends.

The making of cha ca is quite complicated and requires many steps such as filtering out the bones, marinating and adjusting the ratio of spices, usually done without any specific recipe/ratio but by personal experience. The chef must carefully fillet the fish, then chop it into bite size pieces and marinate with galangal, me (a type of ferment), turmeric, pepper and fish sauce. Only the chef of the restaurant knows the ratio of each spice. For example, if the chef puts in too much me, the fish will be too sour. If there’s too little, the flavor suffer a considerable downgrade. The fish must be marinated for at least 2 hours then grilled on top of a charcoal stove, making sure that both sides are evenly browned and crispy, but not too cooked that it becomes rubbery and flavorless.

For the preparation, the waiter will bring freshly grilled fish onto a boiling pan on a charcoal stove, along with cilantro and spring onion, the reason being that cha ca must be enjoyed piping hot or it will lose the delicate flavors. To eat cha ca properly, you must first put spring onion and dill into the boiling pan and mix it up evenly with the fish. Add a little bit of vermicelli to your bowl, some peanuts, herbs, a piece of grilled fish and pour a little mam tom (shrimp paste) over the top, then you can start enjoying. The contrast and mixture of the hot, crispy fish, the fresh flavor of the herbs, the crunchy nuttiness of the peanuts and the soft, almost cooling vermicelli combines together to create the most delicious taste of this Hanoi specialty.

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