Before my initial visit to Hà Nội over a decade ago, I had read about this dish and was intrigued by the abundant use of fragrant herbs. When I arrived in the city, I walked along the thirty-six streets that make up Hà Nội’s Old Quarter, quickly realizing that each street is named for those goods or foods in which the shopkeepers on that street specialize. Chả Cá Street, for example, is named for this fish dish, made popular by the family that has run Chả Cá La Vong Restaurant for generations. It’s heavy with both scallion and dill.
Walking into the restaurant that day, I was greeted first by those aromas: first onions, then herbs. It’s so good that I’ve adapted the recipe to use tofu and a vegan version of nước chấm, the traditional clear dipping sauce, in place of the fish and fish sauce in the original dish.
Serves 4 as a light one-dish meal
Everyday Table Sauce (See below) seasoned with fermented tofu
- 1 small head Bibb lettuce, torn into bite-sized pieces
- ¾ cup Thai basil leaves
- ¾ cup cilantro leaves
- ½ pound (225 g) dried rice vermicelli noodles
- 1 to 1½ pounds (450 to 680 g) firm tofu
- ½ cup rice flour
- 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¼ cup vegetable oil
- 3 cups scallions (2 bunches) 1-inch (2.5 cm) lengths
- 2 cups (large bunch) roughly chopped stemmed fresh dill
- ½ cup roasted, unsalted peanuts, roughly chopped
- Soy sauce (optional)
Prepare the Everyday Table Sauce and put in a small bowl or two. Mix the lettuce, basil and cilantro together in a serving bowl or on a large plate.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Drop in the noodles and use chopsticks or tongs to untangle and loosen. Boil until tender, 3 to 5 minutes, then drain and immediately flush with cold water. Gently squeeze four to five times to get rid of any excess water. Set aside on two medium plates, loosely covered with a clean kitchen towel.
Cut the block of tofu into ½-inch-thick (1.5 cm) rectangles. Then cut each block into smaller rectangles about 1½ inches by 2 inches (3.8 by 5 cm). Mix the rice flour, turmeric, and salt in a large bowl. Add the tofu, toss to coat lightly, and transfer to a plate.
Heat the oil in a wok or 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Carefully place some tofu in the oil and fry until each side is crispy and golden, 3 to 4 minutes per side. You may need to cook the tofu in two batches. Transfer briefly to a paper-towel-lined plate and arrange on a serving platter. Carefully pour out most of the oil, leaving 1 tablespoon. Reheat the oil over medium-high heat. Stir-fry the scallions for about 1 minute before tossing in the dill. Stir-fry for another 30 seconds and arrange nicely over the tofu. Sprinkle the peanuts on top.
To eat, each diner puts some noodles in a bowl and some dilled tofu on top. They can add some of the lettuce and herbs and then a good drizzle of the table sauce. Toss together before eating. Add a splash of soy sauce for extra seasoning, if desired.
Everyday Table Sauce (Nước Chấm Chay)
Traditionally made with fish sauce, nước chấm is a fixture on restaurant tables throughout Việt Nam. Clear, light, and endlessly versatile, this dipping sauce has the magical ability to bring together many distinct flavors into a cohesive whole.
My version is, of course, vegetarian, and it works wonders as a dipping sauce for fresh and fried spring rolls and Crispy Rice and Mung Bean Crepes (page 217). I also drizzle it over a Tasty Rice Noodle Bowl (page 188). I tasted many vegetarian versions at street food stalls, in homes, and in monasteries, and after some tinkering I’ve managed to achieve the ideal balance of sweet, sour, salty, and spicy.
Makes just over ½ cup (125 ml)
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- ¼ cup (62.5 ml) water
- 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon fresh lime juice
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 fresh red Thai bird chile, finely chopped or thinly sliced
- 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
Put the sugar, water, rice vinegar, soy sauce, lime juice, and salt into a bowl. Stir until the sugar is fully dissolved. Add and mix in the chile and garlic. Taste and adjust the seasoning if needed. Let the sauce sit for 10 minutes before serving to allow the flavors to intermingle.
Serve in one medium bowl with a spoon so guests can drizzle some extra sauce into their spring rolls following their initial bite. Or double the recipe and serve in small individual bowls.
- For a sweeter sauce, add 2 teaspoons to 1 tablespoon more sugar.
- Whisk in 1 teaspoon fermented tofu or a tablespoon of the fermented tofu brine.
- Stir in ¼ to ½ teaspoon wakame or hijiki powder.
- Use fresh coconut water (not milk) instead of tap water.
- Add 1½ teaspoons finely chopped lemongrass.
Note: You can mix the sugar, water, vinegar, soy sauce, lime juice, and salt together up to a day in advance. Stir in the chile and garlic 10 to 15 minutes before serving.
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Reprinted from Vegetarian Vietnam. Copyright © 2018 by Cameron Stauch. Photograph by Evan Sung. Published by W.W. Norton & Company.