Cha Ca La Vong (Vietnamese Catfish with Turmeric and Dill)

Susie Bui, a wonderful cook who once had a popular Vietnamese-Brazilian fusion restaurant in Dallas called Lumi, taught me to make this dish, a cult favorite in Hanoi. The idea is to serve yourself a piece of fish, along with some stir-fired dill, onion and scallion, and wrap it in a stretchy rice paper with herbs, lettuce, vermicelli, cucumber and peanuts, then dip it in nuoc cham or mam ruoc cham (Vietnamese dipping sauces).

Unless you're an active East Asian cook with a well stocked pantry for Vietnamese dishes, this one will probably involve a trip to an Asian grocery or supermarket. You'll need galangal, which looks a bit like ginger root and is pretty expensive (6 ounces cost $5 or $6 at the two supermarkets where I have found it), herbs for your rau thom (plate of fragrant herbs for putting in the rolls), rice papers for making your rolls, rice vermicelli noodles and fish sauce. Finding Vietnamese herbs and fine shrimp paste is probably most challenging. The shrimp paste is only for one of the two dipping sauces – mam ruoc cham, the optional one.  (Not everyone will love that sauce, as it is very pungent. Everyone will love the other sauce, nuoc cham. If you're adventurous, it's nice to have both, but not at all necessary.)

The exact herbs you use for the rau thom isn't all-important; you just want what's fresh and fragrant. If you can get something like holy basil, Thai basil, rau kinh gioi (Vietnamese balm) or shiso, go for mint and regular basil. In case you don't have a place to pick up these fresh Asian ingredients, here's an online source for galangal, Thai basil and Thai chiles. You can find the dry goods – including fine shrimp paste and Asian mushroom seasoning – at Amazon.

Oh, a word about the mushroom seasoning: It includes MSG and other additives. Because I don't love using an ingredient like that, I created a substitute that – to my palate – works just a well delivering the required umami punch: Shiitake mushroom powder plus soy sauce and water (proportions are listed below in the ingredients list). To make shiitake powder, simply place dried sliced shiitakes in a small food processor or spice mill and process or grind to a fine powder. It keeps indefinitely in an airtight container or zipper bag, and has many uses (it's a great umami booster, when used with soy sauce) that you can use to boost savory flavor in sauces, soups or stir-fries.

You'll also need a piece of cheesecloth and either a sturdy food processor or a mortar and pestle. 

While the fish is marinating – in a pungent mixture of galangal juice, turmeric and other spices – have all your dipping sauces and rau thom prepped and plated. While the fish is baking, boil the vermicelli noodles, so they're ready and waiting, too. Once the fish is fried, all that's left is to put some warm water in a large shallow bowl so everyone can dip their rice paper wrappers in it, letting them become stretchy and pliant for making rolls – which everyone can have fun doing at the table. You can also eat skip the rice paper and eat it, with or without vermicelli, in a salad bowl, with lettuce, cucumber, herbs, peanuts and a drizzle of nuoc cham or mam ruoc cham.

If you have trouble finding roasted unsalted peanuts, buy raw ones, put them in a small bowl in the microwave and zap them for five minutes, stirring once halfway through.

A lot of dill is used in this dish: Two bunches in the ingredients list means two regular bunches (the size of parsley bunches), not the tiny ones sold in small clamshells. The mushroom seasoning called for in the dish is available in large envelopes in Southeast Asian grocery stores.

Serves 4 to 6.

Ingredients

For the fish:

2 pieces of galangal, about 6 ounces, peeled

1 tablespoon garlic powder

1 tablespoon onion powder

3 tablespoons ground turmeric

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon mushroom seasoning (or 1 tablespoon shiitake powder, 1 tablespoon soy sauce and 2 tablespoons water)

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 pounds catfish fillets, cut into pieces about 3 inches by 2 inches

Peanut oil or canola oil for frying

1 bunch scallions, trimmed and cut in half (separating the white part from the green), and the white parts sliced in half vertically

1 yellow onion, peeled, cut in half and sliced thin

2 bunches dill

Roasted unsalted peanuts for garnish

For serving

Round rice papers

Rice vermicelli, boiled in unsalted water till tender (about 3 minutes for thin vermicelli), drained and rinsed to cool

Cucumber (1 English, 2-3 Kirbys or 3-4 Persians), sliced 1/3 inch thick on the diagonal, then cut into batons

Nuoc cham (fish sauce dipping sauce)

Mam ruoc cham (nuoc cham with shrimp paste, optional)

Roasted unsalted peanuts

Rau thom (fragrant herbs platter)

Holy basil (or other basil)

Vietnamese balm (rau kinh gioi or shiso)

Mint

Romaine or red leaf lettuce leaves

Instructions

1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Chop the galangal into five or six pieces (it is very tough – you'll need a heavy cleaver, or you can saw through it with a heavy serrated knife). Place the pieces in the bowl of a food processor and pulse them until they're in small pieces. Then process continuously so the galangal is finely chopped. Alternatively, you can grind it with a pestle in a mortar. Place the chopped or ground galangal in a small bowl and stir in 4 tablespoons water. Over another bowl, pour the galangal and water onto the cheesecloth, gathering the cheesecloth up around it to contain it all. Squeeze the galangal to release as much galangal juice as possible into the bowl; you should have a little more than 4 tablespoons. Discard the cheesecloth with the galangal inside.

2. Add the garlic powder, onion powder, turmeric, sugar, and either the mushroom seasoning or shiitake powder, soy sauce and 2 tablespoons water and stir to combine well. Add the olive oil and stir to combine. Place the catfish in a bowl, add the galangal juice-spice mixture and use your hands (wearing gloves if you don't want to stain your fingers) to coat the fish pieces evenly. Set it aside to marinate for 30 minutes.

3. Lay the fish pieces in one layer on a baking sheet, place in the oven and roast for 15 minutes. Set aside.

4. In a large skillet, pour about half an inch of peanut or canola oil and heat the oil over medium-high heat until it is almost smoking. Working in batches, fry the catfish about three minutes on each side, till the edges are starting to brown. Transfer them to a platter as they're done. 

5. When all the catfish is fried, pour out all but about two tablespoons of the oil. Place the pan over medium-high heat, add the onions and scallions and stir-fry them about five minutes, until they're soft. Add the dill and stir-fry it with the onions and scallions another minute or so. 

6. To serve, place the stir-fried onions and dill on a large platter, place the catfish fillets on top of them and garnish with roasted peanuts. Serve immediately with rice papers, vermicelli, cucumber, peanuts, the rau thom and dipping sauce or sauces.