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“There are many French customers, and I can speak French. I have just given them a brief introduction about chả cá, or fried fish, and they seem fascinated. Sometimes, guests go down to the chicken, clap their hands and exclaim”. So say Truong Dinh Tuyen, an 84 years old patron at Thuy Hong, a restaurant on Hanoi's Hang Tre Street that specializes in fried fish.

Mr. Tuyen recalls going out for “chả cá” with his mother as a young boy. At the time, the restaurant owner presented dinner with a tray of fish skewer. When it came time to pay the bill the owner would count the empty skewers.

In winter, Hanoi is typically cool and drizzly. On just such a day I share a meal with Ms. Thuy, the owner of the Thuy Hong. She fried up a pot up charcoal and pours oil into a pan, then adds thin pieces of lean fish, peanut sauce and fresh dill. I eat the hot, moist fried with cool clumps of vermicelli noodles, dipping everything in pungent, salty fish sauce. The meat is washed down with special rice wine from Van village. Sitting over this delicious meal, the weather no longer seems as biting. While cha ca is enjoyed year-round, it is especially satisfying in the winter. At around VND130,000 per serving, is a well-priced treat.

To prepare ordinary fried fish is a simple process. The fish is cleaned, spiced and fried. Hanoi's “chả cá” is another story. The recipe as been passed down for generations. Catfish are preferred, ideally from an area of the Lô river with a strong current so cleaning, the fish is soaked in boiling water, then cut to square chunks. Spicing is the tricket, say Ms. Thuy mother, Mrs. Truong Hoang Bich Lien.

Every chef has his or her own secret recipe, but standard ingredients include fermented shrimp paste, saffron, galingale, onions, and shallots. Marinated fish is put on skewers five chunks to one skewer, and frilled over charcoal. Fresh dill, shrimp paste, white and green onions and peanuts are added. When done, the fish is served with rice-vermicelli.

Chef Bich Lien learned to cook “chả cá” from her own mother, herself a famous producer of salted fish in Hanoi. The charcoal alters the fish's flavor, claims Ms. Lien. She buys hers from Huong Pagoda, as is burns without smoke. The high quality fish cost around VND400,000 per kilo. The peanuts come from Bac Ninh provine, and the vermicelli from Phu Do village. While many foreigners find the shrimp paste (mắm tôm) too strong, everyone wants the chance to sniff this stranger sauce!

Just as no visitor to Hanoi should miss sampling a bowl of “phở” (beef noodle soup), one should pass up a plate of sizzling “chả cá”.

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