Fish soup for the soul

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A simple, rural dish carries the flavor of the best offerings from Vietnam 's rice fields

Rice vermicelli and anabas soup in Hai Tu Quy Restaurant in
Ho Chi Minh City's District 3

It is always a good time to eat rice in Vietnam. But something else that grows well in the rice fields becomes harvestable just after the rainy season, a gift of the overflowing rivers, streams and canals the field anabas.

Also known as climbing perch, this fish has been on many traditional Vietnamese menus for a long time. It might be a commonly available dish, but the distinctive flavor of its flesh gives anabas a special place.

The fish are found in fields around the country, but it is said that those found in the northern province of Hai Duong taste the best. Maybe it is the soil that is well suited to the fish's living environment, maybe it is something else, but many people agree that the fish here is especially fragrant, its flesh firmer and its broth tastier.

It is no big surprise then, that the fish has become a specialty identified with the province. And the signature dish, rice vermicelli and anabas soup, non-fatty and delicious, is not a difficult one to prepare.

The best time to buy the anabas is in fourth month of the Lunar calendar, shortly after the heavy showers, when the fish are at their well fed best.

To prepare the traditional noodle soup, one cleans the anabas by scaling and gutting them and dividing them into two parts, one for preparing the broth and the other to be used when the dish is almost ready.

Add one part of fish and some water in a pot. Boil until the fish flesh separates. Remove the bones. Do not add pork bones to make the stock because it will spoil the flavor of the fish broth. The broth is good when it is transparent and has the sweet taste of the fish. Some crushed fresh ginger should be added to the broth to make it even more fragrant and tasty.

To enjoy the taste of this rural, simple and tasty dish that costs about VND40,000 per bowl in HCMC, try:

Hai Tu Quy
263 Vo Van Tan Street, District 3

Cau Do
243 Nguyen Xi Street, Binh Thanh District

The remaining fish is also boiled, but for a much shorter time. As soon as it is cooked, pick out the bones and stir-fry the fillet in a little oil or fat with some shallots.

Once this is done, put the cooked rice vermicelli in a large bowl, add the stir-fried fish, top it with sliced spring onions and pepper, and pour the hot broth over it. Serve with a side plate of bean sprouts, shredded banana, split water spinach, basil, lettuce and a smaller plate of fish sauce mixed with chili.

Specialty moves to the city

The popularity of this dish has spread far beyond Hai Duong Province, and its flavor has reached Ho Chi Minh City.

In fact natives of Hai Duong Province out of town for work or business gather often at restaurants in HCMC to enjoy their hometown's rural flavor.

There are many restaurants in HCMC specializing in the rice vermicelli and anabas soup, but perhaps the best known is Hai Tu Quy in District 3.

Restaurant patrons, regulars and newcomers are usually very satisfied by the tough and silky anabas flesh, fresh and sweet, stir-fried with turmeric powder, with a crispy texture.

It is a special, eye-catching treat when the dish is served with some golden anabas eggs that make tiny popping sounds in the mouth. Some bạc hà (Alocasia odora) and water dropwort add to dish's flavor and taste.

The rice noodle soup tastes even better when the weather turns a little chilly. Add some fresh herbs, and some pungent and spicy chili powder. The sweat and heat and spiciness generates on one's forehead, is a fitting response to the weather.

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