By Hoàng Hồ
Watching the sun come up as you stroll down a beach is no doubt a great experience.
If you visit Phú Quốc as I did last July, 5:45am is the time to catch the first rays of the day on the east side of the island.
The feeling, for me anyway, was satisfying, like conquering your laziness and savouring a glorious sight as a reward.
But that’s not the case for everyone, and for Nguyễn Văn Minh, sunrise is nothing new as he heads off for the fisherman's equivalent to a nine to five.
I mean, literally.
Gỏi cá trích (herring salad) is a specialty of Việt Nam's Phú Quốc Island. Photo dulichvietnam.com.vn
Every day at 4am, Minh sets off in his small fishing boat.
“I go out there when the fog is still thick, so seeing the sun come up is a daily routine for me,” said the veteran fisherman.
“For me, the real dawn is seeing fish in my baskets.”
About 10km from the shore near the reef, Minh anchors his boat and gets ready for the big morning ahead.
“Among the many kinds of fish like barracuda and cobia, herring provide me the most income, especially in Lunar July when it’s herring season.”
“Herring live in schools along the coast, and they feed near the many reefs. They leave tiny ripples wherever they go, which help the fishermen find them.”
“To catch them, I just drop a basket in and wait for 30-60 minutes before pulling it up,” Minh said.
Herring can be used to make many mouth-watering dishes. Photo dienmayxanh.com
That morning was another successful trip for Minh, and he was able to fill his 12 baskets.
Looking at the shiny silver fish, I never thought the process of sorting, chopping, and preparing them for me to savour would be so fast until I saw raw herring mixed with grated coconut and spices served right in front of me.
Yes, it’s herring salad, the Vietnamese sashimi.
Watching the latest catch being hauled up the beach, resort owner Trịnh Công Phát knew exactly what to do.
“To make a delicious dish to please my customers, I have to be really quick and careful selecting the best fish as the earlier I do it, the better quality the herring will be,” Phát said.
“High-quality herring have more meat, and their meat is excellent. That’s really important because it’s eaten raw, so when the customers see and eat the fish, they recognize the quality at first sight.”
After cleaning, scraping off the scales, cutting off the tail, head and intestines, the fish are sliced and chopped into bite-sized fillets.
The next step isn’t frying or grilling, it's dipping them in vinegar and lemon juice for five minutes before garnishing with spices and a side dish of rice paper, cucumber and herbs.
“While preparing the side dish, put the fish on ice. The sauce can be made with vinegar or lemon, but for a strong taste, the secret is to use guava vinegar which is very famous on Phú Quốc, with salt and a little sugar,” Phát said.
As soon as the fish is ready, it's time for the garnish.
It isn’t banana or grated papaya like many southern salads, but grated coconut.
It seems like a strange combination because coconut is normally used as a topping for desserts, but that’s not the case for herring salad, especially in Phú Quốc.
“Just line the fish at the bottom of the dish, and evenly sprinkle the grated coconut with roasted peanuts, onions and herbs, and you have your herring salad, but there's one more step.”
Herring grilled over charcoal is so tasty that many visitors to Phú Quốc take some home. Photo thuysanxunghe.com
Hà Tuấn Tài, the owner and producer of Đức Tài Fish Sauce, is the sixth generation of his family to involved in the fish sauce business.
“The dipping sauce for this dish is fish sauce, and when talking about excellent fish sauce in Việt Nam, Phú Quốc’s got to be on top,” said Tài.
“We have the best anchovies – the main ingredient of fish sauce, and with a secret recipe we create one of the best fish sauces in the world,” he said.
“To enjoy this salad, you need rice paper. Wrap the fish together with herbs, coconut and roasted peanuts to sense the chewiness in each bite,” Phát explained.
That was literally my friend Đậu Minh Thắng’s expression after just one bite, and there’s no denying that the fish sauce does boost the flavour to the next level.
The sweetness with a little sourness of the soft herring was so good it melted in the mouth.
The taste seemed to envelop the tastebuds as the crispy coconut, onion and roasted peanuts blended together, and thanks to the sauce, the whole experience is heightened.
It might be a simple dish, but believe me, try it with your eyes closed and imagine you're on a boat watching fishermen pull their catches in. VNS.