Quy Nhon prefers it spicy, Nha Trang likes it sweet, Hai Phong takes it with dill… the varieties are endless. Like its midpoint location along Vietnam’s 3,300km of coastline, Danang’s version of bun cha ca — fish cakes and noodles — sits somewhere in the middle, the perfect blend maybe, giving the city its ‘absolute must-eat’ dish. But even then, as with grandma’s meatloaf or any bartender in Havana’s mojito, everyone does it differently, and all will argue their version’s authenticity.
Nguyen Van Huan has been bringing his family’s bun cha ca Da Nang recipe to the thrum of Phan Xich Long Street for the past seven years. Here are the basics:
Bun — simple enough. Vermicelli rice noodles, few grounds for contention.
But add the cha ca and things get a little blurry. Ground fish cakes (or ‘pies’ to translate directly), are poached or shallow-fried, and served with noodles in a zingy vegetable-based broth — most commonly a reduction of boiled pumpkin, pineapple, tomato... and the all-important fish head.
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So which fish? “Other recipes use a mixture,” says Huan. “But here we just use mackerel, that is the traditional Danang way.”
I’m in no place to argue, but do not be surprised to find combinations of flying fish, knife fish, catfish, tuna or barracuda elsewhere. To make the cake, the raw meat is ground to a smooth paste along with spring onions, salt, pepper, various seasonings and corn flour. In this process, density is key, the thicker the better. “One traditional way,” my friend Loan tells me, “is to cover the grinder with ice, to keep the machine and the fish cold so the meat will be firm and thick.” Huan’s cakes are indeed plenty thick and meaty, delicately flavoured and not too heavy as such a description might suggest.
In our bowls we uncover a combination of poached and fried slices of the cha ca, the latter fringed with a tasty golden coating (a result of the paprika-spiked oil). By also adding tender cubes of pure and unground fish meat, Huan has achieved a pleasing balance of textures and flavours.
The Elements Combine
On to the soup. Although restaurants in Danang will serve the stewed pineapple, tomato and pumpkin (bamboo shoots may also make an appearance), at Huan’s, they are removed, with only some basic herbs and spring onions added — leaving a simple but flavoursome broth that is far less ‘fishy’ than I had expected.
“This tastes… healthy!” says my dining partner.
We top our steaming bowls with a few pinches of the fresh greens provided — cabbage, basil, lettuce and coriander — and the overall effect is one of perfect finesse; gentle flavours bouncing lightly between sweet and salty, the citrus notes from the pineapple working particularly well with the fish. With the tiniest dab of fresh chilli, the meal is complete. While your grandma may provide a saucer of shrimp paste to top it off, at Huan’s it’s all about the basic flavours.
So important a dish is this to the central regions, that many restaurants use their own fishing boats to catch just the right ingredients. In Huan’s case, like others living away from the coast, he has established a direct link with suppliers in Danang to retain the authenticity of the meal.
“So, is this a ‘Saigon’ version of bun cha ca Da Nang?” I ask.
“No, no,” he says. “Everything, all of the ingredients, it’s all from Danang.”
“Even the fish?”
“Even the fish,” he replies.
Grandma would be proud.
Bun Cha Ca Da Nang is at 8 Phan Xich Long, Phu Nhuan, Ho Chi Minh City. Thanks to Minh and Duc from Tiger Tours for their translation services