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Traveling to Vietnam via fragrant spices and vibrant flavors

By STEPHANIE ZUBIRI, The Philippine STAR Published Apr 01, 2021 5:00 am

As we approach summer in another lockdown, it seems as though travel to exotic places is nowhere in sight. However, we don’t need to be content with the same old dishes day in and day out.

One of my favorite things to do is to explore the world through the palate. We can transport ourselves via fragrant spices and vibrant flavors. This will be the first in a series of travel-inspired dishes that will hopefully accompany you throughout the summer.

Hanoi romance

Completely opposite from its fast-paced, energetic southern sister city of Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi has a palpable romantic quality to it. The light is different in this city. It’s soft, dreamy, diffused by the haze that wafts slowly over the numerous lakes.

Rows of narrow houses embrace the bodies of water ultimately snaking through the chaotic streets of the old city, the haphazard architecture of nostalgic colonialism juxtaposed with shiny new development.

Young couples dressed in their wedding finest pose all over the town, postcard perfect. People spill over to the sidewalks. Sitting on low, grimy plastic stools, smoking, peddling, drinking tea, and playing chess… everywhere there is someone cooking.

As you navigate through the low-lying crowd, the familiar smells of Vietnam cling to your skin: pungent fish sauce tempered by the distinct, sweet odor of sugar and fragrant garlic; the soft caramel burn of fried shallots; the bright, tangy notes of lime.

Leafy mountains of lush green herbs call out invitingly, their grassy scent intoxicating: cilantro, mint, lemongrass, and basil. There’s the richness of a boiling pot of pho, or the welcome smoke from a fired-up grill where tender morsels of pork slowly char into deliciousness.

On No. 14 Rue Cha Ca in Hanoi is a crooked, sea-foam green house that serves nothing but its specialty, a delicious turmeric fish that takes its name from the tiny side street where the old house resides: Cha Ca La Vong.

The trick is not to skimp on the herbs. Use the freshest ones that you can possibly find, tear them up a little but leave them whole in all their glory. Serve it all precariously piled high like a stunning mountain of green topped with the fried shallots.

The place is grimy, it’s hot with absolutely no polite niceties at the door, but you come out absolutely satisfied by this fragrant culinary wonder. A giant, oil-filled wok is brought to you tableside with the fish happily sizzling away, adorned by a garden of fresh green herbs and a bowl of cold rice noodles. Taken apart it all seems simple and boring enough, but once you eat it all together it’s a delight in freshness and flavor.

The trick is not to skimp on the herbs. Use the freshest ones that you can possibly find, tear them up a little but leave them whole in all their glory. Serve it all precariously piled high like a stunning mountain of green topped with the fried shallots, then right before eating mix everything together, making sure you take bites with a little bit of everything in it.

 Vietnamese Cha Ca La Vong


200g tilapia fillet, cut into large cubes (or you could also keep and fry it whole)

2-3 tablespoons shallot oil (use canola oil to deep-fry shallots or red onions – see procedure below)

2 paper-thin sliced rounds of peeled red ginger

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 clove garlic, minced

1 teaspoon minced lemongrass

Small bunch fresh cilantro

Generous sprigs of fresh dill

Small handful of spring onions, 2-inch lengths

A few mint leaves

A few sweet basil leaves

Handful of fried shallots or red onions*

2 tablespoons Vietnamese dressing*

1 1/2 cups cooked and cooled rice noodles


Vietnamese dressing or Nuoc Cham:

2 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce

2 tablespoons sugar

1/2  cup water

2 tablespoons lime juice

1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar

2 raw garlic cloves, thinly sliced


Red chilies


Dressing: Bring the fish sauce, sugar, garlic, carrots, whole red chilies, and water to a quick boil until the sugar is well dissolved, then let cool. Adjust the taste with white vinegar or lemon. The taste must be a mix between sweet and sour with a hint of heat.

Fried shallots or red onions: Slice the shallots or red onions thinly. Dredge in flour and deep-fry in a neutral oil. You may save the shallot-flavored oil for later use in other dishes.

Cha Ca La Vong: Boil the rice noodles according to the package, drain and rinse immediately with cold water and set aside.

Sauté the garlic, red ginger, ground turmeric, lemongrass, a pinch of salt and some black pepper in the shallot oil for a minute or two.

Add the fish and sauté it in the fragrant and colored oil until cooked through. Season with some salt and pepper.

Plate the fish on top of the noodles, pouring some of the cooking oils on it. In a bowl, mix all the fresh herbs together. Top the fish with the whole fresh herbs and fried onions. Drizzle the Vietnamese dressing on the fish and noodles, serving some on the side for those who may want more.