Almost 150 years ago, living on the Hang Son street (Paint Street) of Hanoi was a young man called Doan Xuan Phuc, a painter by trade. Doan was a young Vietnamese compatriot who did not like the French occupation of Vietnam, so he regularly used his shop as a safe house for the local resistance movement. His wife, Bi Thi Van,happened to be an excellent cook, who would serve their guests with her signature dish Cha Ca (grilled fish). In order to elude the French authority, Doan eventually gave up his painting shop, instead, he converted it into a Grilled Fish restaurant to hide his insurgents activities. What Doan did not expected was that his restaurant would become so popular that generations after, his children, his grandchildren, and his great-grandchildren would still be running it; and his dish would become the definitive style of Hanoi Grilled Fish.
Among Vietnamese cuisine, Cha Ca is perhaps the iconic dish of Hanoi, not only because of its fascinating history, but also because of its complexity in preparation that is unlike any other grilled fish elsewhere in Vietnam. The fishhas to be the Spotted Longbarbel Catfish that only live in a few rivers North of Vietnam. Sometimes, the Snakehead fish is used instead but it has a lot of tiny bones and the meat is neither as lean nor sweet. And unlike other regions in Vietnam where the fish is simply minced and grilled, for Cha Ca Hanoi, the fish would be filleted whole, cut into smaller pieces, and seasoned with different 5 spices, from turmeric, lesser galangal, to pepper and shrimp paste and then grilled until it is golden on both side. But that’s not the end of it, the grilled fish would then be fried on a sizzling skillet on top of a charcoal tabletop brazier, with dill, basil, cilantro, welsh onions and other exotic herbs to create an elegant, musky flavor, blended with a whiff of spicy sweetness. Everything would then be served with Bun, moist, silky rice noodles that balance out the frizzling pieces of fish with its cool freshness; peanuts, and salads. If heaven has a flavour, then Cha Ca would be the closest taste.
Ask a Hanoian, and he would tell you that the best time to have Cha Ca is by the end of Autumn, when the first Northern Wind arrives, because there is nothing better than having a piece of of steaming grilled fish and glass rice liquor to warm you up. But if it’s in the middle of summer, perhaps then Cha Ca with a cold Hanoi beer, would be a better choice.