Viet Nam News
With an abundance of seafood, southerners have created a wide variety of dishes featuring fish in various modes - stewed fish, grilled fish, fermented fish, fish vermicelli and, of course, the ubiquitous fish sauce.
The aromatic, juicy Cá kèo (pseudapocryptes elongatus), one of the southerners’ favourite fish, is used for grilling and hotpot. “Kèo fish hotpot originates in the south of Việt Nam and has been one of the highlights of the southern rural kitchen,” said culinary expert Lê Kim Chi from the Quán Ăn Ngon restaurants chain.
Kèo fish is a type of catfish the size of about two fingers and about 15 cm long when it is mature. This fish is found mostly in Sóc Trăng, Bạc Liêu and Cà Mau provinces.
Writer and journalist Phan Trung Nghĩa from Bạc Liêu province once wrote: “In the early 19th century, Bạc Liêu was a characteristic province of the Mekong River Delta with scores of rivers, streams and cannals. Many rivers stemmed from the sea, therefore there was an abundance of seafood there.
“In the lead-up to the Tết (Lunar New Year) holiday, when slightly cold weather comes, kèo fish season begins. In local cannals and rivers, kèo fish is so abundant that the fish heads emerging from the water look like dense black spots on the surface of water.
“Kèo fish grow very quickly. It is as thin as a toothpick at the beginning of the rainy season and becomes as big as a thumb at the end of the season. At that time, a day’s catch could reach 500 to 700 kilogrammes of kèo fish, so much that no boat was big enough to store them,” wrote Nghĩa.
The fish has since become a favourite of not only people in the south but also food connoisseurs in Hà Nội, said Chi.
Chi has brought many southern dishes, including kèo fish hotpot, to her Quán Ăn Ngon restaurants in Hà Nội. “Hanoians fall for this dish very quickly,” she said.
To make authentic kèo fish hotpot, Chi, like other cooks, has to import kèo from the south and keep them alive until they are cooked. “The prerequisite requirement for this dish is for the fish to be fresh and live,” said Chi.
“Fish is to be eaten a few minutes after being put in the broth because this type of fish is small and long and therefore it is cooked very quickly,” said chef Nguyễn Xuân Luyến from Quán Ăn Ngon.
As kèo fish do not have anterior dorsal fins, they don’t have little bones. Despite its unattractive look, the fish meat is delicious — being soft in texture and having a unique aroma of a fish living in nature, an aroma that is rarely present in frozen fish.
Normally, when cooking fish, Vietnamese people add seasonings or specific types of vegetables to reduce the fishy smell, for example pepper, rau răm (Vietnames coriander) or pineapple or dấm bỗng (rice wine residue). “In cá kèo hotpot, locals use their lá giang (river-leaf creeper) and tamarind, which help to add sourness. Some replace tamarind with either lemon or vinegar, yet these two are not a good choice as lemon may cause a bit of sourness when it is added to hot water while vinegar is not as delicate as tamarind,” said Luyến.
Therefore, there is no fishy smell in the broth. Instead, the first whirl of steam from the boiling broth will make diners’ mouth water. Taking a first sip of broth is never enough, arousing curiosity and a desire for more of the slightly sour, salted, sweet and a bit garlicky meaty fish.
The ingredients and preparation of Vietnamese hotpots are simple: broth made by simmering pork bone, (different types of) meat, various kinds of vegetable and vermicelli noodles with broth at the end of the meal. While lẩu bắp bò (beef thigh hotpot) features the tenderness of beef, the seafood hotpot indulges diners with the sweet meaty broth, lẩu mắm (salted fermented fish hotpot) features the pleasantly pungent and characteristic aroma of salted fermented fish, kèo fish hotpot impresses diners by its delicate broth, aromatic fish meat and characteristic vegetables of the rural south.
The kèo fish hotpot broth is made by simmering pork bone with lá giang (river-leaf creeper) which tastes sour and has a good aroma. Other vegetables served in this hotpot include rau đắng (bitter vegetable), banana flower, kèo nèo (yellow burrhead), water lily and water spinach. Locals also cook kèo fish with pepper or rau răm (Vietnamese coriander), or grill the fish with chilli and salt. — VNS
Lẩu cá kèo is served at:
Quán Ăn Ngon Restaurants
§ 18 Phan Bội Châu Street, Hà Nội. Phone: 04 3942 8162
§ 34 Phan Đình Phùng Street, Hà Nội. Phone: 04 3734 9777
§ Floor 1, 25T2 Hoàng Đạo Thúy Street, Hà Nội. Phone: 04 3556 0866
§ B2 Vincom Royal City, 72A Nguyễn Trãi Street, Hà Nội. Phone: 04 6664 0066
Phương Nam Restaurant, Number 2, Alley 69 of Chùa Láng Street, Hà Nội.
87 Bà Huyện Thanh Quan Street, District 3, HCM City.
4 Nguyễn Thị Diệu Street, District 3, HCM City. Phone: (08) 3933 0696