Sunday, June 19, 2011

Vietnamese Turmeric Fish with Rice Noodles, Dill and Nuoc Cham

For many diners, all it takes to enjoy a meal is the right condiment. Some people (and, for convenience, we'll call them Midwesterners) douse any number of dishes with ketchup before consumption. Others carry around a small bottle of a favorite hot sauce in their purse. For me, the magic condiment is fish sauce and lime juice.

Okay, it's not quite as versatile as ketchup. And I realize that fewer Americans share this obsession. But I love, love, love this combination. Funky, salty, umami-rich fish sauce, mixed with a bright sour hit of lime? Perfect. Add a little sugar to sweeten out the edge, and some water to lighten things up (yielding nuoc cham, a favored dipping sauce), and there's nothing better. And lest you vegetarians feel left out, you can often find fish-free fish sauce substitutes at Asian markets (look for the Vietnamese word chay, which means vegetarian, and also look out that it doesn't use msg as a shortcut). Even if you're wedded to ketchup, you should give this combination a try.

I usually put together my favorite nuoc cham to dress rice noodle salads (or, if I must admit, frozen potstickers). But a few years ago I tried this amazing catfish dish at a local Thai restaurant. Catfish was dredged in a turmeric-heavy rice flour coating, then pan-fried and served on a bed of rice noodles. Some fresh herbs (including the I-didn't-know-it-was-used-in-Southeast-Asian-cooking dill) were sprinkled on top. And my beloved fish sauce dressing pulled it together beautifully. A basic fried fish, when it came down to it, with an exciting punch of flavors. I had to make it at home.

Trolling around the internet, I discovered that this recipe is famous in Vietnam, originating in Hanoi's Chả Cá Lã Vọng restaurant. Recipes vary -- some with fried shallots, some with grilled instead of pan-fried fish -- but the basic model of turmeric-scented fish, rice noodles, fresh dill and nuoc cham remains the same. I've made it several times, barely following a recipe, adapting to the fresh herbs on hand (as long as dill is in the mix), and often tossing in some totally non-traditional broccoli or spinach to green up the meal. Sometimes I fry whole fish fillets and break them into the rice noodles as I eat, other times I cut the fish into bite-sized pieces before dredging and frying. It's always great. It's also a lovely summer choice, as there's no oven involved, just a bit of pan-frying. So when I had some fresh dill left over recently after cooking up a pile of Swedish midsommar food, and when I realized I had never told you about this dish, it was the logical dinner choice. Perhaps it'll win over some new nuoc cham devotees.

Vietnamese Turmeric Fish with Rice Noodles, Dill and Nuoc Cham

serves 4
adapted from several sources, notably Mai Pham's
The Flavors of Asia

1/3 cup lime juice
1/2 cup fish sauce
1-2 Tbsp sugar
1/2 cup water
1 clove garlic, minced
4 small fresh chilies (or more or less to taste), sliced into rings

Noodles, Fish and Herbs:
6 ounces rice vermicelli (1/2 package)
1/2 cup rice flour
1 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp salt
2 large fillets (~1 lb) catfish, tilapia, or similar fish (I'm currently smitten with the cheap-and-delicious Swai), left in fillets or cut into 2" pieces, as you prefer
2-3 Tbsp high-heat oil for cooking, such as canola
1 bunch scallions, thinly-sliced (~1/2 cup)
1 bunch dill, roughly chopped (~1 cup), divided
1 handful basil leaves, roughly chopped
1 handful cilantro, roughly chopped
1/4 cup roasted peanuts
hot sauce, such as sriracha

Prepare the dressing by mixing together all of the dressing ingredients in a bowl. Adjust as needed to get the hot-sour-salty-sweet balance to your taste. Set aside.

Cook the rice noodles according to the directions on the package, and set aside at room temperature.

Heat a large frypan over a medium-high heat. On a plate, mix together the rice flour, turmeric and salt until well-combined. Place the fish on the plate, and press into the rice flour coating so that it adheres. Turn the fish over over and coat the other side.

When the pan is hot, add ~2 Tbsp oil. Add the fish, and fry on each side until done, ~3-5 minutes per side, depending upon the size of your pieces. Remove from the pan and set aside. In the same skillet (adding another Tbsp of oil if it's dry), add the scallions and half of the dill. Saute for a minute or two, until the herbs soften and just begin to cook. Turn off the heat, and add the remaining dill and the other fresh herbs.

To serve, place a pile of rice noodles into a bowl. Top with a portion of fish and some of the herb mixture. Sprinkle with peanuts, dress with the fish sauce dressing, and add hot sauce as desired.


  1. Are you knocking my Midwestern right to love condiments?? Granted, most of my condiments are homemade, and I only keep 'store ketchup' on hand for emergencies... and thankfully my picky kiddo won't even touch ketchup, which seems to be the opposite of most picky children...

    I'm new to appreciating fish sauce, and it did take me a few tries to really fully appreciate it. I don't cook a whole lot of Asian food, and you inspire me to branch out!

  2. Of *course* your condiments are homemade! I expect nothing less. Though a ketchup-free kid is a bit confusing. Perhaps he'll like fish sauce?

  3. Or perhaps you can sell this as just a slightly tweaked version of a Wisconsin fish fry?

  4. That would work if he ate fish... I swear. Yesterday I was so psyched with my blackberry jam, and when I told him to taste a little on a spoon you would swear I had asked him to taste battery acid. He screamed and ran away. I wish I was kidding. (I KNOW that one day he'll wake up and eat everything. I can hardly wait :) )

  5. Amazing recipe - and we loved the "build it yourself" element. I cooked broccoli as a side - that was a mandatory ingredient :) My son liked the peanuts but not the sauce, and my daughter the sauce but not the peanuts; hubby and I liked both. So, everyone was happy, and there's plenty of sauce left for another time. Thanks for a great recipe!

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  7. Hi , im taking my first culinary arts exam and i am planning to do this . i do not need the do costing so i fished some tilapias to use . i dont know how to fillet a fish so can i use the whole fish instead of fillet ?

    1. I've only used fillets (and never pan-fried a whole fish), but feel free to play around...

    2. Thanks! I'll try to using a whole fish

  8. I'm going to try this, for my wife this evening, I love Vietnamese cooking, something that I got to try on rare occasions, when I was on a one year, free trip there in 1969 courtesy of the U.S. Army.