I’ve spent much of my career innovating: creating new concepts, new dishes (or new spins on existing dishes), and new environments. The constant generation of new ideas, calling upon the creative muse, was de rigueur for my chosen métier. Or so I thought until last month in Ho Chi Minh City, when I came face-to-face with a dish I should have met twenty years ago.
Chả Cá Thăng Long (also known as Chả Cá Lã Vọng), as far as I understand it, originated in Hanoi, to north of Ho Chi Minh City, in the dish’s eponymous restaurant, Chả Cá Lã Vọng. I sat in the sister restaurant of the original staring at a photo that looked to be 40-50 years old in which an older man wearing a tunic of sorts seemed to be preparing to butcher what looked like one of the legendary Mekong giant catfish. I had very little idea exactly what was going to arrive at the table.
These sister restaurants prepare and serve only this one dish. The only act of ordering involves explaining how much of the dish one wants and asking for a beer (in our case, a beer with a watermelon juice back). While we waited for this legendary dish, Jori and I mapped our next moves: that is, planned where we were going to eat next, and rehydrated with watermelon juice and barely maintained minimum vacation alcohol levels with beer on ice.
First to arrive was the mise en place for the dish, a typical table setting for many Southeast Asian dishes.The array of dishes placed before us consisted of a small plate of lime halves and chopped bird chili, julienne of scallion whites, a small plate of rau ram and coriander, peanuts, a larger bowl of dill mixed with a julienne of scallion greens, peanuts, fresh extruded, warm rice noodles and a pinkish/purple condiment of fermented shrimp called mắm nêm. Mắm nêm has the fermented fishy funkiness of a couple of my favorite condiments: cincalok and northeastern Malaysia’s famed budu (also produced in the southeast of Thailand, an area rich in Muslim culture, more so than elsewhere in Thailand, and in many ways similar to the Kalantan and Trengannu regions of Malaysia). In short, it is pungent and assertively salty and a little goes a long way. The Vietnamese mix this thick, stinky ferment with pineapple puree in order to balance the saltiness and ever-so-slightly mitigate the odor of decay.
I was working up a lather, as it were, so it was my good fortune when the star of the show arrived, the fish. An aluminum pan about nine inches across was brought to the table on a portable metal platform under which a gas burner flickered. In the pan were a number of small tranches of what I believe was snakehead fish (but may have been some other variety of oily Mekong river fish) slicked with yellow oil, speckled with bits of minced garlic and framed by wilted sprigs of dill and a smattering of scallion greens. The oil was delicately sizzling over the mild heat. The aroma was entrancing; the blend of turmeric, dill and garlic instantly triggered my appetite. Over the years, I’ve found that dill plays a larger part in Southeast Asian cooking than I had ever imagined as a young cook in Malaysia. One of my fondest memories of dill showing up in the cuisine of SEA was in a soup I ate in Udon Thani, Thailand. The base was a relatively simple chicken broth which was then layered with wild mushrooms, pieces of chicken, ant eggs, fried garlic and a heap of torn dill sprigs.
We were instructed to add more scallions and dill to the pan as the fish, which had been grilled beautifully and was cooked through by the time it came to the table, sizzled. We gently moved the herbs and fish around the pan, ensuring all ingredients were well slicked with the turmeric oil and, simultaneously, we busied ourselves with arranging some of the fresh, sticky, thin rice noodles into our bowls, a landing pad for the first piece of fish. The rest of the meal was a frenzied mix of adjusting, seasoning and shoveling. We would tweak each bite, a bit more chili a bit less lime, more rau ram, more mắm nêm, moaning, literally, each time we shoveled in another mouthful.
So, moments after the meal was consumed and my revelry subsided just enough to regain some analytical abilities I knew that I was not alone in what was sure to become a new infatuation. I’ve since learned that friends and colleagues such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Andy Ricker have put riffs on this dish on their menus. “How could I have missed this? How could I be so late to the party?” I thought. Next came: “Why care when I arrive? What’s best is simply arriving.”
And so here we are: a new infatuation and a new moment in time, the flavor profile has been laid before me, the ideas tossed back and forth with Tony Scotto, head man at the south 3rd noodle factory, and access to necessary ingredients facilitated by some of our friends who farm up here in Columbia county. So we’ve put together a riff.
Come April, we’re tweaking the format of Fish & Game’s menu, as we are wont to do, to simplify it even further, thus continually opening it up to the varied palates and price point sensitivities that roll on through our pinpoint of riverside urbanity. We have been cranking out beautiful pasta from our in house pasta company using a variety of local flours and grains, but it wasn’t until I returned from Vietnam that we determined adding a rice noodle made with our friend’s rice, grown in Ghent, would be an excellent addition to this soul satisfying menu category. With Chả Cá Lã Vọng as inspiration, we set about developing a rice noodle dish that both exalts the flavor of this local, nutty brown rice and pays homage to one of Vietnam’s culinary treasures.
Tony, ever diligent, tested and adjusted the ratios until he found the appareil that yielded the best balance between flavor and chew, and then set about working through the palate of turmeric, garlic, and dill seasoned with a bit of fishy funk. As luck would have it, this spring we have a two-year aged fish sauce coming out of barrel, salty, assertive, funky and distinctly Hudson Valley—as are the turmeric, garlic, dill and scallions. I’m amazed by the access we have to what I had often regarded as more equatorial ingredients. The turmeric here smells and tastes a bit different; it is perhaps more earthy and somewhat less perfumed than its relative in the tropics. That is what gives all of our food a taste unique to this, to our, terroir, i.e. it is grown here so it tastes of here, not quite like there.
Our “stab” at this dish, as Andy Ricker writes on his menu at Pok Pok, is perhaps less stab than a rework. It has become a rice noodle dish, sauced with a ragu of catfish that has been marinated in turmeric and garlic, smoked over our wood grill, then tossed on the heat with dill, minced garlic, turmeric oil, scallions, and Lady Jayne’s salted chilies and then finished with a drizzle of the Blue Heron fish sauce, more dill, and, to mimic the crunch of peanuts, puffed and crisped rice from Ghent. We’re still playing with the size and shape of the noodles, so come in April and see for yourself. Oh, and I guess I should mention that this noodle dish is 100% gluten free. Some things—not many, but some—just seem to turn out right.
I look forward to seeing our friends, family and lovers this spring. Look for our new book, http://project258.com/ which will be released on March 14th in stores across the country. We too will be showing up in spots across the country, cooking, signing, throwing parties and selling our Fish & Game book to our brothers and sisters across the land.
See you in April!