Where fishy is delicious

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   Bánh mì (Vietnamese sandwiches) stuffed with chả cá (deep-fried fish paste), spring onions, Vietnamese corianders, peppers, cucumbers, and chili sauce / PHOTO: GIANG VU

Often hailed as one of the world's best street foods, bánh mì (Vietnamese sandwiches) comes with more kinds of filling than most foreigners possibly know.

Travel guide Lonely Planet once described "the world's best sandwich" as a "light baguette grilled over coals, a smear of mayonnaise and a dollop of pâté, the crispy shell filled with meat, crunchy pickled vegetables and fresh herbs and seasoned with a few drops of soy sauce and a spicy chili condiment."

Vietnamese, especially in Saigon, however, have a myriad choices of filling for bánh mì, including thịt nưá»›ng (grilled pork), xíu mại (Chinese meatballs known as shu mai in Chinese), and roasted pork.

Another option has been added recently: chả cá or deep-fried fish paste.

Dozens of push carts selling bánh mì chả cá can be seen on Duong Ba Trac Street in District 8, Vinh Vien Street in District 10, and Bui Thi Xuan Street in District 1, not to mention many others here and there across the southern metro.

According to Tam, a seller in District 1, the food was popular in coastal towns like Nha Trang, Phan Thiet, and Vung Tau long before making its way to Saigon.

The woman runs a stall at the intersection of Luong Huu Khanh and Bui Thi Xuan streets with her husband. She is from Vung Tau, where she made chả cá to earn a living, and left her hometown to sellbánh mì chả cá on a push cart here around three years ago.

The chả cá made by Tam is fresh, moderately tough, and has the spicy tone of pepper, so her sandwiches are very popular.

BÁNH MÃŒ CHẢ CÁ VŨNG TÀU (Vietnamese sandwiches with Vung Tau deep-fried fish paste)

77 Bui Thi Xuan Street, Pham Ngu Lao Ward, District 1 (at the intersection of Luong Huu Khanh Bui Thi Xuan streets, near Bui Thi Xuan High School)

Open hours: 2 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Price: VND12,000/baguette

Indeed, who can resist a crispy baguette stuffed fully with strips of deep-fried fish paste? Not to mention colorful and tasty add-ons like spring onion, chili, pickled vegetables, chili sauce, and Vietnamese corianders to balance the heat of the newly-grilled chả cá and spicy accompaniments.

Tam said while most other sellers use basa fish to make chả cá, she orders the paste from Vung Tau. She said the paste there is made from mackerel that is ground fine and kneaded with spices before being frozen with ice and transported to Ho Chi Minh City.

She uses a machine the couple designed to squeeze the fish paste into long strips for frying.

They used to do it by hand by putting the paste into a nylon bag and squeezing it out through a hole.

After being fried for a moment, the fish paste turns yellow and gives out an aroma that leaves passers-by with their mouths watering.

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