Chả Cá Lã Vọng: The Northern Dish you Must Eat When in Vietnam
When guests ask me for my favourite Vietnamese foods, chả cá always challenges for a top spot. Every aspect of the 100 year-old northern specialty contributes to one of Vietnam’s most enriching dining experiences. Chả cá hasn’t reached similar global heights to its edible peers, which makes it harder to find outside of its birthplace in Hanoi. Fortunately for those who missed chả cá lã vọng in the capital can save themselves the return trip to Hanoi by visiting a new restaurant in Hue.
What is Chả Cá Lã Vọng?
Chả cá simply translates to grilled/braised fish, but its minimalist name doesn’t hint to the complexities of its flavours. The river fish is marinated with turmeric then fried with dill and scallions. The fish is fried twice, once by the chef and then at the dining table. The dish must be eaten straight from the pan and additional ingredients added by the diner moments before consumption to maximise its taste bud sensations. Along with the dining table stove and frying pan, chả cá also comes with a plate of vermicelli noodles (bún) and several small dishes of lime, fish paste, peanuts and fresh chili. A delicate portion of each ingredient creates a dish like no other.
How to Eat it
The chả cá dining experience can be a daunting one for those not entirely experienced with Asian cuisine. Due to the delicacy of the dish, getting the balance of flavours right is essential. Although there is never one way to eat any Vietnamese dish, my Hanoian friend gave me some invaluable advice for eating chả cá; after adding every ingredient and condiment, the result shouldn’t be bigger than a mouthful! Keep that in mind when following these steps.
- The waiter will bring out the pan of fish and set the stove alight. Although the fish has already been cooked, this is merely to reheat the fish, dill and scallions. Your waiter may do the cooking themselves or leave you to it. Keep the ingredients in the pan moving to avoid it sticking and burning at the bottom of the pan.
- Use your waiting time efficiently and get some quick prep done. That tiny bowl with the purple shrimp paste needs a few cuts of chili, several drops of lime and a stir with a chopstick.
- Once complete the waiter will lower the stove’s flame and the fish will continue to simmer.
- Take a small piece of fish along with a tiny amount of dill and a shred of scallion to your bowl. Dress with a few strings of vermicelli noodle.
- Squeeze a drop or two of fresh lime, a couple of peanuts, a dab of purple shrimp paste and if desired, a cut of chili or two.
- And that is chả cá lã vọng. Get the whole thing between your chopsticks and send it down the trap. Destination ngọn!
Where Does the Dish Come From?
Chả cá lã vọng originates from one eatery in the centre of Hanoi’s old quarter. Still active on the street that has been renamed after the much-loved dish, the restaurant first began operating during the French colonial era over 100 years ago. Legend has it that anti-colonial revolutionary cells would frequently congregate there under the cover of the restaurant to exchange information on latest activities and findings. The name Lã Vọng belongs to a Confucian legend whose statue would sit overlooking diners at the restaurant and now lends its name to the dish.
Bún Chả Hà Nội vs. Chả Cá Lã Vọng
When Anthony Bourdain took Barack Obama to bún chả in Hà Nội, I always wondered why he couldn’t have spared a couple more dollars and took him for chá cả lã vọng instead. Maybe they got the names confused? I am certain that a serving of chả cá lã vọng may have instilled some of that age-old revolutionary spirit in Obama and could have changed the current dystopic face of global politics we find outselves in today. Don’t make the same mistake as Anthony!
Despite both having bún (vermicelli noodles), their respective meats being chả and originating from Hà Nội. There are multiple distinctions between the two dishes. Firstly, bún chả is a dish based on minced pork shoulder squeezed into meat balls. While both dishes include vermicelli rice, chả cá uses shrimp paste rather than fish sauce as its primary condiment. Vegetables for bún chả are pickled whereas chả cá’s dill and scallions come fresh and fried on the table. Finally, there bún chả is mainly a greasy affair whereas chả cá lã vọng is evened out with its side-ingredients. Oh and of course, chả cá lã vọng is much more of a table spectacle!
Where to Get the Goods in Hue...
Despite being a dish exclusive to Hanoi, recent years have seen a few locations open up in Hue and despite being almost 1,000 kilometres from home, they serve a decent chả cá lã vọng.
Chả cá Lăng Hà Nôi
254 Ngự Bình
While the restaurant is further out of town than …. The restaurant surrounds the exterior of the owner’s house and tables are set beside the garden.
Chả Cá Hà Nội tại Huế – NGƯ PHỐ
1 Dương Văn An
Classier dining experience than your average street food joint. Close the to centre of town and quality is to a high standard.
But it Ain't That Local
Chả cá lã vọng is a northern dish and a finer dining experience. This is the kind of dining experience for families. Don’t expect these restaurants to be full of streetlife buzz! If you’re looking for something curbside and definitively loca, take the Hue Grit Food Tour!