Fish artisans

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The locals of the northern province of Ha Nam's Nhan Hau riverside village are fish artisans, who export thousands of cooked fish every year nationwide and overseas, including to China, Germany, and Korea. 

Last Lunar New Year, the village exported twelve thousand pots worth over VND3 billion.

October and November mark the material preparation in the village for Tet Festival business. Hundreds of people are sent out to other areas to look for ca tram den (black carp), a kind of fish that feeds on grass and snails, and is ideal for the braised dish.

According to Tran Duc Tuyen, vice chairman of Hoa Hau Commune's People's Committee of Nhan Hau Village, there are about 20 braised fish producers, each of which exports two tons of braised fish in 600-700 earthenware pots during the peak season.

"The dish is eaten all year round, but during the Tet holiday, it is paid more attention. During chilly days, people just look for mouthwatering meals consisting of hot rice, banh chung (square glutinous rice cake), and a pot of braised fish," said Tuyen.

Each pot costs VND500,000-600,000 (US$25-30), according to braised fish artisan Tran Ba Luan, a veteran from the Cambodia battlefield. "It is not a small thing to braise fish for we have to pay attention to every stage of cooking, from choosing the pot, to mixing the ingredients to produce the most tasty dish," said Luan.

The fish are raised in several ponds in the village for use in December or early January, and there is also preparation of tons of firewood and other materials, including earthenware pots, rieng (alpinia), fish sauce, chili and lemon. Some of the ingredients are planted locally in their gardens.

According to Tran Huy Thoa, one of the village's most respected artisans who produced more than two thousand pots last year, weather is one of the important factors in the success of the dish. When it is hot, it is easy for the food to spoil sometimes within five days. In cold weather, without preservatives, the food should be consumed within 15 days. During Tet, the order is made at least one month before delivery, due to long waiting list.

Thoa said that pots produced in Nghe An Province are of the best quality, but the best pot lids are produced in Thanh Hoa Province.

"It is a must to check and strengthen the pot with boiled water before the cooking process," said Thoa, who used more than ten tons of firewood and rice husks to cook the fish last Tet Festival.

Only ca tram den weighing from three to five kilograms, is ideal in cooking the dish. The fish is braised for ten to 12 hours on a low flame until there is only one small spoon gravy in the pot.

According to Thoa, water is never used to cook the fish. Rieng, lemon juice, ginger, juice from ground freshwater crab and pig bone are the essential ingredients to create this local dish.

First, layers of rieng slices are placed at the pot's bottom to prevent the fish from burning, and then the juice from ground freshwater crab and pig bone are added to soak the fish, making it more fatty and tasty.

The fresh fish together with fish sauce, grind ginger and rieng make up the second layer. Seasoning powder, lemon juice and qua chap (a local fruit) is added only when the mixture is boiled enough.

Like other local braised fish experts, Thoa can discern if the fish meat is salty just by smelling, and can tell the amount of gravy left in the pot thanks to its gurgling sound.

The best braised fish has a yellow chrome color, is firm and intact, and the bone is well-cooked enough to eat, according to artisan Tran Ba Luan.

Nobody can tell when the craft made its debut, but according to Tran Duc Tuyen, the dish has been around for a long time and can be cooked by all locals, though it only recently became famous.

Thoa said that his first order dates back to the 1980s, when some of his friends and relatives asked him to prepare some pots for them. The business started in 1981 when some local soldiers from Ly Nhan District asked him to cook 70 pots of fish as gifts.

"They were my first customers," he said.

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