Workers add brine to pots of braised fish at the house of Tran Van Thao, one of the biggest suppliers of braised fish in clay pots in Ha Nam Province. The dish has become a Lunar New Year specialty and is a sought-after gift. Photo by Luu Quang Pho
Families in a commune not far from Hanoi store a lot of firewood during the Lunar New Year festive season since there is huge demand for their specialty -- braised fish in clay pots.
A local official in Hoa Hau Commune in Ly Nhan District of Ha Nam Province said at this time a family can make enough money for the rest of the year since they make a profit of 10-20 percent on this sophisticated dish.
It is cooked by browning fat and adding fish with salt or fish sauce, and is common enough around the country.
But what makes the one in Hoa Hau special and expensive is that the fish is braised for up to 12 hours to soften both bones and scales, and galingale and lemongrass are added for flavor.
The rural style of cooking by using hand-made clay pots on firewood is another signature.
The pots are bought in Nghe An Province and the lids in Thanh Hoa Province.
The cooking usually starts in the afternoon, and a solution of salt and fish sauce is added constantly to make sure the fish does not burn.
Workers only sleep two to three hours a day, and the job normally comes with fin cuts, burns, and sore eyes due to smoke.
Hoa Hau chefs mainly use black carp they breed themselves.
The fish is sold in the market at around VND110,000 a kilogram but a braised fish pot of two to five kilograms costs VND500,000-1 million (US$24-48).
Tran Van Thao, the commune police chief, makes 2,000 pots for the festival.
At a profit of VND100,000 per pot, 2,000 pots constitute a fortune, he said.
Several hundred families in the commune braise fish for a living during the festival and deliver 30,000-40,000 pots, he said while loading his pots on a truck headed for Hanoi. His workers cook around 100 pots at a time.
Thao said the tradition dates back to the subsidy period, which lasted a decade after the Vietnam War and when everything was rationed.
The commune government harvested fish from ponds before Tet and provided each house a kilogram, so every family learned to braise fish so that it would keep for several days.
The first orders came around 15 years ago to Tran Huy Thi, chairman of the commune veterans’ association, after he gifted some pots to former colleagues.
The commune is home to the late famous realism writer Nam Cao, and most of its 15,000 residents have the surname Tran.
Those with other names are migrants.
Nam Cao’s birth name was Tran Huu Tri.
Thi’s family now owns one of the biggest operations in the commune.
Locals are reluctant to identify their customers, admitting merely that they are all “bosses” since normal people would not pay so much for a normal dish.
Tran Huy Doan received an order for 80 pots from a transport company in Hanoi for use as Tet gifts.
Thao said the commune not only supplies customers in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City but also to Viet kieu, who carry the pots to many countries.
“I have plans to open a company to expand my clientele.”
Several families also have websites and 22 of them have formed the Hoa Hau Braised Fish Association.
Tran Duc Huy, the commune Party chief, said the association is meant to gain the dish some kind of official recognition.
The commune is working to register a brand name, he added.
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