It’s bothered us for a while that we can make Latin American ceviche but we had no idea how to make Vietnamese ceviche (gỏi cá). This past weekend, we set out to correct this imbalance.
We wanted to learn to make the dish as traditionally as possible so it was time to read up on recipes. Google searches turned up many recipes and instructions in Vietnamese that were all over the place. As we did more searches into this dish, we were struck by how a dish could be quintessentially Vietnamese (lots and lots of greens and herbs in a rice paper roll) and yet unique among its peers (wetting rice paper in coconut milk anyone?). We decided to draw on the common and/or interesting elements from the recipes that we found. So, consider this a best practice review (as Lamp would put it) or a high-level synthesis (my way of describing it) (can you guess the fields we are in yet? :D).
For the fish: we bought whole sardines. The fish mongers cleaned the fish for us, but we had to fillet them ourselves. We marinated sardines fillets in lime juice (~5′), then drained and squeezed out the juice from the fillets (care should be taken not to mush the fillets). We saved this juice to make dipping sauce. Sardine fillets were then mixed with minced ginger, garlic, galanga (riềng) and roasted rice powder (thính). We marinated fish fillets for a few hours in the fridge.
For the dipping sauce: we added coconut soda/juice (or water) to the fish marinade saved earlier, then added fish sauce, sugar and lime juice to taste. Then minced garlic, chili peppers and roasted peanuts were added to complete the sauce.
For the greens: as many herbs and vegetables as possible. When this dish is served in Viet Nam, the fish is accompanied not only by herbs but also by many different types of young leaves gathered in the backyard and/or forest. We didn’t quite know how to forage in the wild yet, so had to resort to foraging at the farmers’ market and an Asian supermarket. After a long walk through these 2 markets, we ended up with the following:
- dandelion greens
- 2 types of young kales
- húng cây (spearmint)
- kinh giới (Vietnamese balm)
- rau răm (Vietnamese coriander)
- rau om (rice paddy herbs)
- bean sprouts
- chuối chát (plantain)
- khế (starfruit)
- kiwi (for sourness, since we only found 1 starfruit at the market and it didn’t look like it’d be sour)
(Did we mention this was a quintessentially Vietnamese dish? This list isn’t much longer than a standard list of greens that typically accompany a dish involving rolling food in rice paper)
Oh, and don’t forget the coconut: diluted coconut milk (1:10) for wetting rice paper and coconut meat for inclusion in the rice paper rolls. The recipes called for roasted grated coconut, which we forgot to get, so we made do with the tender flesh of the young coconut instead. It was fine – grated coconut would assert itself more forcefully as a distinct textural component, but roasted young coconut flesh was rich and flavorful. A new ingredient to work with!
Phew, that was it for preparations. This is what the spread looked like:
The glass of wine contained nước sim (hill gooseberry juice) mixed with shochu. Most of our working recipe is adapted from the gỏi cá style practiced in Phú Quốc, where sim fruits are plentiful and rượu sim (sim liquor) is a local delicacy. We would love to get our hands on authentic sim liquor someday, but the faux rượu sim paired very well with gỏi cá.
When we finally sat down, made our rolls, dipped them in dipping sauce, and took our bites, we encountered a riot of flavors. Our taste buds definitely had to work overtime with each bite given the incredible blend of flavors: spicy galanga and fragrant roasted rice commingling with the strong fish flavor of sardines, floral flavor of rau om, savoriness and creaminess of roasted coconut, bitterness of dandelion greens, leafiness of young kales, sweet fruitiness of starfruit, stringency of plantain, sourness of kiwi, sharp freshness of herbs and saltiness of dipping sauce that had been accentuated with fish marinade and roasted peanuts. Oh my. And yet the ingredients blended together harmoniously or else waited their turns to assert themselves, making for a different sensation with each chew.
We were blown away by this dish. I actually thought it was much better than bò nhúng dấm (vinegar beef hotpot), which means a lot since bò nhúng dấm has always been my favorite dish. This dish is definitely more complex, starting with the defiantly fishy sardines that eclipse the milder vinegary beef. The variety of vegetables are similar, but gỏi cá trích specifically calls for as many as you can get, preferably by foraging, so that’s another point in its favor. Even the rice paper dipped in coconut milk, which we were initially skeptical about, turned out great – not greasy but a vehicle for additional coconut richness. Finally, it’s hard to beat a dipping sauce that decorates nước chấm (fish sauce with all its usual fixings ) with roasted peanuts and lime-fish marinade. Yum, and a new favorite!