The Art of Chả Cá Hà Nội
Chả cá dates back more than 130 years. It was first invented by the local Đoàn family, who served the special dish to troops during French colonial rule. They named it after Jiang Ziya (Lã Vọng in Vietnamese), a Chinese noble who fished with a bare hook and helped King Wen of Zhou overthrow the Shang Dynasty.
Being a homely dish cooked by Đoàn family in a difficult time, chả cá became a popular dish for gastronomers in Hà Nội. In Đoàn restaurant there was always a statue of a fisherman called Mr. Lã Vọng sitting with his arms clasping his knees by the stream. Mr. Lã Vọng is considered a talented and respectful man waiting for his opportunity to help the country. For this reason, the restaurant was called Chả Cá Lã Vọng till it became the official name of the restaurant. It quickly became a hot dining spot favored by the very aristocrats and colonial officials it sought to unseat.
Following the restaurant’s wild success, dozens of chả cá specialists emerged along the same road — Eventually, Hang Sơn (Paint Street) was officially renamed Chả Cá Street in honour of the world-famous dish.
Despite numerous attempts to bring chả cá to other regions, the capital city remains the best site to sample this northern Vietnamese delicacy. In Vietnamese, the word “cá” means “fish,” while “chả” refers to a variety of grilled or fried dishes using meat or seafood as the main ingredient.
Chả cá consists of chunks of grilled river fish rendered in oil and served with vermicelli noodle, shredded spring onion, dill, toasted peanuts, and shrimp paste (mắm tôm). People who love Hà Nội often claim that enjoying chả cá with some Vietnamese rice liquor is the most gripping thing to do in the first days of the frosty winter. The crackling sound of hot grease cooked in boiling oil and the yellow colour of turmeric marinated fish combined with the green spring onion and the flames of charcoal in the warm stove is inviting and intimate, and will give you the wonderful experience of savouring the essence of this world.
The original chả cá was made from a river fish called cá lăng a type of catfish (hemibagrus), caught in the big rivers of the northern mountainous area. It is one of the biggest river fishes thus very easy to remove all bones to have a large fillet with tender flesh. The fish is cut into matchbox-sized pieces, marinated in galangal, turmeric along, with fermented rice paste with other spices. Then the spiced fish pieces are placed into bamboo clips to be grilled on charcoal until both sides are almost cooked. After that, the fish is put into a frying pan with hot oil, together with dill and spring onion for a short time by the dinners themselves at the table. As cá lăng is getting harder to come by these days due to overfishing and pollution, many cooks often replace them with carps, snakeheads, or another type of catfish (pimelodes).
Besides, for the ultimate luxury and culinary experience in the past some restaurants also used cá Anh Vũ (semilabeo notabilis), please see more information below) It fished at the turning point of Bạch Hạc River in Việt Trì City and located 70 kilometers northwest of Hà Nội in northern Việt Nam.
After filleting cá Anh Vũ and grilling it with lá sói leaves (Wild wolf leaves, please read more below) the sweet-aromatic aroma of chả cá will be enhanced. However, because the fish is rare and only emerges once a year, they rarely serve chả cá made of cá Anh Vũ nowadays. As a result, the restaurants replace them with cá qu (snakeheads).
The ancient Vietnamese myth is handed down that semilabeo notabilis was a fish that had existed in Việt Nam since 2,000 BC. It was offered to King Hùng. The King named this fish “Anh Vũ”, and entitled it “the fish of Văn Lang nation” —probably located north of what is now Hà Nội.
Semilabeo notabilis, is known as the most valuable freshwater fish in the north of Việt Nam. However, due to overexploitation in recent years, their productivity has dropped dramatically. In the wild, Semilabeo notabilis have been categorized as endangered.
Wild wolves are flowering plants, belonging to the wolf flower family (Chloranthaceae). The tree is also known as smooth wolf, smooth wolf, coral grass. The wild wolf tree is native to Southeast Asia and is found in countries such as China, India, Malaysia, and Japan. In Việt Nam, the tree grows wild on the edges of forests and mountains in areas such as Lạng Sơn.