The first time I heard of Cha Ca La Vong, it was on Susie Bui's Instagram feed. Back in November, she had posted a photo of her dad's version of the dish. I couldn't tell what it was exactly, but it was gorgeous – with tons of dill, and turmeric-stained morsels of something, and onions, all being pushed around in a wok. You could just tell looking at it that the flavors were vivid and wonderful.
And there were so many other delicious things on her feed, seemingly that she had cooked: shrimp and egg whites, Chinese style; hu tieu hoanh thanh (Vietnamese wonton soup); beef with mushrooms, chives and bean sprouts; tom kho tau (braised shrimp in roe).
I'd never met Susie – or at least never in the normal way. I'd seen her and talked to her back in 2009, when she and her brother had a restaurant in Dallas, Lumi Empanada and Dumpling Kitchen. (Dallasites, do you remember it? It was in the wood-frame house on McKinney that later became Belly + Trumpet.) Her brother, married to a Brazilian woman, was the reason for the empanadas. I was an incognito restaurant critic, just starting out in Dallas when I reviewed the restaurant, and it charmed me. But because I was incognito, I didn't introduce myself.
Susie had never run a restaurant before, let along owned one; prior to opening Lumi she was a marketing coordinator for Brinks Home Security. But she had a real flair. "Somehow," I wrote in a three-star review, "despite her lack of experience and the craziness of the concept, Bui has managed to pull it off with panache and a serious sense of style and fun." Plus a number of the dishes were terrific: Chinese five-spice duck and leek dumplings; traditional Vietnamese crab and asparagus soup; a crazy-good Thai-style blue-crab fried rice.
The restaurant didn't last long (despite the positive review,) and Susie left the restaurant business, and in 2014 she left Dallas for San Francisco.
The day before she left, though, something interesting happened: At a Dallas wedding, she met Tony Perez. "We kept in touch," she says.
And then some: In July, the couple plans to get married, in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
Susie has since returned to Texas, but not Dallas – she and Tony live in Houston, where he has a sandwich shop. Susie works for Samsung – out of the company's Mountain View, California office. (She only has to pop in every couple of months.)
So, to get back to Susie's Instagram feed, everything she was cooking looked so delicious. By the looks of her posts, it seemed she visited Dallas with some frequency, so I invited her over as a guest cook for the blog. To my delight, she accepted.
On a Saturday afternoon a few weeks ago, she showed up at our house, with Tony and their friend Phong Tran in tow. So much fun to meet them, cook, hang out, talk food – and then feast on the results.
Cha Ca La Vong wasn't a dish I'd ever heard of before, and it turns out it has an fascinating story. "It's very popular in just one part of Vietnam," says Susie. "Hanoi. They even have a street named after it."
Susie has never had the dish in Vietnam, but Phong has, two years ago, at the legendary restaurant named for the dish, Cha Ca La Vong. "It was the first time I tried it," he says; he only learned about it when he was researching what to eat in Hanoi. And it blew him away. "It was probably one of the best dishes I had in Vietnam when I was there."
Later I did some reading, and learned it's a dish with cult status. At more than 100 years old, Cha Ca La Vong is not the only place in Hanoi that serves it. In fact, there's a whole street called Cha Ca after the dish.
Susie's parents are from the north; her dad, a wonderful cook, she says, taught her to make the dish.
Susie took stock of my kitchen (yes, I have cheesecloth! Yes, I have a mortar and pestle! Yes, I have rice paper!), then she put Tony and Phong to work grinding the galangal. It's a gnarly root that looks a bit like ginger root, but it's about 9,000 times as tough. They peeled it with a sharp paring knife, then pounded it with the pestle in the mortar, taking turns because so much elbow grease is required. "You can do it in a food processor, too," Susie said, but she enjoyed watching the boys do it the old-fashioned way. That would go into the rub for the fish. When I saw how hard it was to grind it, I knew I'd use a food processor.
Meanwhile, Susie showed me how to make our two dipping sauces: An all-purpose nuoc cham (fish sauce, lime, garlic, sugar and Thai chiles), and a funky-intense spin on it, mam ruoc cham, made by stirring pungent, fermenty fine shrimp paste into nuoc cham. Tony can't stand anything with shrimp paste – he ate too much of it once, the first time he met Susie's family, he reminisced, and he hasn't been able to manage it since. It's super-intense if you taste it on its own – and even the dipping sauce is pretty funky. But Thierry and I both loved it, especially with all those fragrant herbs in rolled up with the fish. The combination yells "wow!"
The nuoc cham, easy and approachable – and made from easily-found ingredients – will definitely go into my regular repertoire. To make it, we, just stirred together fish sauce, lime juice, garlic and sugar and Thai chiles, then adjusted the taste. For the Cha Ca La Vong, we just added a tablespoon of the shrimp paste. (If you're skipping the pungent version, you might want to serve double the amount of nuoc cham.)
Once we had the sauces ready and Tony and Phong had accomplished their galangal-grinding duties, Susie made the marinade for the catfish.
Oh, a word about the fish. I'm prone to bouts of angst and 4 a.m. brooding, and I worried about it. Do people want to eat catfish? My friends who are native Southerners love it, and I've always enjoyed it – whether fried Southern-style or steamed or fried Southeast Asian-style. Is it ecologically responsible and healthful? A quick check on Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch app assured me that American-raised catfish (which is what you will probably find) is a "best choice." This month's GQ magazine has Mark Bittman raving about catfish, which he calls "the one American fish we should all be eating." They're ugly customers, he points out. But "they're among the best-tasting, most sustainable fish you can find – white, flaky and tender, farmed with clean and smart techniques." Good to go!
OK, that marinade. Susie added a few tablespoons of water to all that ground galangal (what an interesting perfume it has!), then gathered it up in a cheesecloth and squeezed all the juice into a bowl. She then stirred in spices: ground turmeric, garlic powder, onion powder, sugar, mushroom seasoning and olive oil. She cut the catfish into pieces, coated them with the yellow marinade and let them sit for half an hour.
While they're marinating, I want to tell you about the mushroom seasoning. It's an ingredient Susie loves to use lots of dishes: soups, sauces, stir-fries – basically any dish in which other Asian cooks might use MSG, which Susie doesn't like to use. I didn't have an easy time finding it in a sprawling Chinese supermarket; I had to show three different employees a photo Susie sent me of her package. Finally one staffer led me to it: They had gigantic (17.5 ounce) envelopes of one brand, and it was expensive – more than $12. I bought it.
Between that and the Vietnamese herbs I sought, it was quite a goose-chase!
Later I brooded about the mushroom seasoning, as it turned out the one I bought does have some MSG in it, listed last in the ingredients – after dehydrated mushrooms, vegetable powder, corn starch, salt, sugar and nucleotide. (The brand Susie uses does not, so check the ingredients if you're looking for it.)
Not that MSG is necessarily so bad, but I don't love using it, or other products with lots of additives. Here's the good news: I wound up developing a substitute that works really well: powdered shiitake mushrooms, in combination with soy sauce. (Incidentally, that was a breakthrough that led to a whole slew of other kitchen breakthroughs – I will write about that very soon!) Anyway, our recipe for Cha Ca La Vong lets you use one or the other.
Half an hour after the marinade went on, Susie laid the fish pieces on a baking sheet and slipped it into a 375-degree oven, to help seal the marinade into the fish before we'd fry it. (In Hanoi, they grill it rather than baking before frying, says Susie. Maybe I'll try that once we're in grilling season.)
While the fish is roasting, that's a good time to boil the rice vermicelli, rinse it with water to cool and put it in a bowl, then set the table: dipping sauces, rao thom, vermicelli, roasted peanuts and rice paper. Make sure you have your sliced onion, scallions and dill ready at hand near the stove, along with a couple of platters.
After its 15-minute roast, we pulled the fish out of the oven, and Susie heated peanut oil in a large skillet, then fried the fish pieces (in a couple of batches) in the hot oil, transferring them to a platter when they were cooked. Then she poured out all but a couple tablespoons of oil, and stir-fried the onion and scallion, then added the dill. All that went onto a serving platter, then the fish on top, and then, as a garnish, roasted, unsalted peanuts.
To the table, yippeee!
Thierry rustled up a bottle of chilled rosé, I filled a shallow bowl with warm water for the rice paper wrappers, and the party began.
For our first tastes, we each dipped a rice paper in the warm water, piled herbs, lettuce, cucumber, a little vermicelli, a piece of fish with some onion, scallion, dill and peanuts on top. Here's what mine looked like:
Then you fold the left and right sides of the wrapper over the ingredients and roll it up, burrito-style. Working with those super-thin, stretchy rice paper skins takes a little practice – don't overfill!
Success! Dip it in one of the sauces, and wow. So wonderful. Dip it in the other sauce, different – and also wonderful, so herbal and fragrant; all that dill and turmeric add up to something very unusually delicious, especially when you get that crazy funk from the mam ruoc cham.
After that, Susie made a rice-paper-free salad-bowl version, piling lettuce, herbs, fish, etc. in a small bowl, drizzling sauce on top and eating it with chopsticks.
Up for trying?
The whole Cha Ca La Vong set-up definitely involves some serious shopping, whether in Asian groceries or online. And some adventuresome kitchen prep. But it's such a fun dish to serve at a casual dinner with friends; it's so interactively delicious. And it's not something you're likely to find in any restaurant – unless you hop on a plane and head to Hanoi.
Yeah, I knew you were ready for the adventure. Here's the recipe:
If you make it, we'd all love to hear about it – please tell us how it goes in a comment!