Hanoi traditional values feature in Old Quarter braised fish

Sunday, 2019-12-01 16:15:29
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The braised grass carp dish sold in Cau Go alley, Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi.
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NDO – Rustic but delicious and delicate "Old Quarter braised fish", which contains many distinct culinary culture features, has becoming more and more popular among costumers, making it a famous dish under the brand of " Hanoi - 36 Old Streets”.

More than ten hours braising

The clock just only marked 5 am, but a dozen family members in Mr. Nguyen Huu Nghi and Ms. Pham Thi Thanh Hang have been awake for a while. In the chill of the early winter, under the incandescent yellow light, the aroma of spices and the sound of large 6-7kg grass carps waggling into aluminium basins created a very Lunar New Year setting.

Nearly two dozen large cast iron pots were gradually ascended to the stoves. Mr. Nghi and his children and grandsons processed and cut the fishes into large sections with the size of two adult fists, before washing and draining them, waiting for the "mistress" to marinate and put the fishes into the pots.

In oriental cuisine, braised fish dish requires the skilfulness in both processing and braising fish. Fish pieces are chopped sharply to the bone but not crushed, while the temperature needs to be accurately adjusted every minute during the braising process which lasts for ten hours.

It sounds simple, but every stage before, during and after cooking the fish pot on the stove must be done carefully and thoroughly. After being mixed with enough seasoning, fish sauce, salt, sugar and pepper, fishes must be marinated for more than an hour. During this time, Ms. Hang took advantage of the time to arrange fish pieces in the pots.

"The fish must be kept alive until they are delivered to the “operating table." Inexperienced chefs may place fish pieces in the pots carelessly, which could lead to the fish to be burned or not be soft enough when braising. The position, order and ratio of fish and other auxiliary components, such as meat, egg-plant, ginger, galangal, lemongrass or sugarcane, must be carefully remembered. Missing or redundancy of only one spice can throw away the whole day,” Hang said.

Ms. Pham Thi Thanh Hang catches fish to prepare for her braised dishes.

Braising fish takes up to 10 hours so Hang must check the progress regularly.

Famous for half a century in Hang Be market

Of course, the heirloom braised fish dish by Mr. Nghi and Ms. Hang could not keep its “fragrance” just by that alone. Hang said that her family's culinary dishes have been passed down from her grandmother, and now they have been passed it down to her children for four generations, lasting for almost half a century. "My grandmother was not a cook, but her braised fish was very famous among those living in the Cau Go - Hang Be neighbourhood," she said.

Nowadays, when human made products have appeared on the internet, it is not easy to see a simple dish which has been popular for half a century.

Ms. Hang's heirloom braised fish is also such a special dish, which is distinguished from the same braised fish dishes in anywhere. The piece of braised fish is thick but firm and fleshy, with strong flavour but without fishy. In the cold winter, just opening the lid of the braised fish pot, the whole kitchen has its own delicious smell. Meat braised with fish during the cooking process seems to "melt" as soon as touching the tongue.

Middle-aged customers or those who are far from the homeland can find the nostalgic taste through dishes of braised grass carp with egg-plant or braised snakehead with radish. Meanwhile, the two types of braised halfbeak with salt or with tomato will surely conquer the most gourmet and fastidious customer. That's why the amount of braised fish consumed at the shop of Mr. Nghi and Ms. Hang is always up to nearly 200kg a day, even if it only opens for a few hours from the late afternoon to the early evening.

“In the past, our grandmother used to wander to buy fish along the Red River early in the morning. At that time, the fishing was still rudimentary, so many times she had to go home empty-handed. And now, we have a daily source of fresh fish with clear origin, full food safety certification,” Mr. Nghi said.

A female customer preparing to leave with a happy face after buying braised fish at Hang’s eatery.

The "Old Quarter braised fish" eatery run by Ms. Hang and Mr. Nghi is always busy with customers. Even some foreign visitors are curious to try the dish.

“Good wine needs no bush”

The "Old Quarter braised fish" is actually not strange for many Hanoians. However, because of its strange deliciousness, which is mainly "advertised" by word of mouth, it can be said that this cuisine is being preserved through the most typical methods of "Hanoi - 36 Streets” culture.

Currently, Cau Go alley area has a few shops with the "Hanoi Old Quarter braised fish" signs, but all follow the common rule: no eye-catching signs, without loudly advertising and only on open in the late afternoon. A few cast iron pots containing braised fish are put neatly together under the low porch, so it became a "braised fish shop" in the shadow of the old Hang Be market in the past. That's all, but a large number of customers always flock to buy braised fish regardless of the weather.

“My family often buys braised fish dish at Nghi - Hang eatery, at least for a decade. I used to like to cook, but except for the braised fish which I always buy from here. Because I have tried it many times but still cannot make it as good like this,” said Bui Thi Thu Ha from Dong Da district.

“The taste of braised fish here is very traditional and can never be forgotten. My brother works in Mozambique. Every time he comes back to Vietnam, the first thing he does is come here to buy braised fish as much as he wants, then stocking dozens of pounds to bring to Mozambique and send to his friends, as well as storing in the fridge for later use,” Le Hai Hung from Hoan Kiem district shared.

“I first learned about the braised fish store No. 1 in Cau Go when I was a student. So far, I have been a patron here for dozens of years. Living and working in Bac Ninh city, I still always visit here every week to supplement the menu for my family. When I was young, I often ate fish braised by my grandmother. She passed away long ago, but I have found the taste of her braised fish from here,” said emotionally Thon from Bac Ninh province.

No matter how popular the brand is, if the quality is not good, then a product definitely cannot bring customers back a second time. In today's bustling, more and more new and even luxurious and flashy dishes appear on the market every day. However, in contrast to that, many diners often frequently visit a food store, where only one item being sold, like Cau Go braised fish.

There are people who only remember the address or the house number without knowing the name of the store owners or vice versa. This belief is the best evidence for the traditional values that seem to be old but bring along the typical culture of “Hanoi - 36 Streets” in the "Old Quarter braised fish".

Photo: NDO/Linh Phan