Famed stewed fish in the heart of the Old Quarter

September 01, 2020 - 09:25

Northern-style stewed fish is offered in three shops located next to one another on Cầu Gỗ Street, which used to host Hàng Bè Market.

Trần Hoàng Nam

The old green Hàng Bè Market was well known for various ready-to-eat dishes.

Though the market no longer exists, customers can still come to shops in the area to see how the food is prepared and bring home dishes like nem rán (fried spring roll), chả mực (grilled squid) together with mắm tép chưng thịt (pork stirred in fat with shrimp paste), thịt kho tàu (Chinese-style stew pork) and cá kho (stewed fish).

Northern-style stewed fish is offered in three shops located next to one another on Cầu Gỗ Street, which used to host Hàng Bè Market.

Three stewed fish shops located next to one another on Cầu Gỗ Street. VNS Photo Hoàng Nam

The shops offer stewed fish, stewed pork with or without coconut and various other stews.

The shop at No 5 Cầu Gỗ Street named Mrs Trinh's Stew Fish is very popular.

Big pieces of grass carp in the brown colour of burnt sugar are placed neatly among sauce, wetting any customers’ mouth.

At 4-5pm every day, many customers flock to buy ready-to-eat food for dinner.

Nguyễn Tuyết Trinh (standing) sells her ready to eat food. VNS Photo Hoàng Nam

Nguyễn Tuyết Trinh, the owner, said there was no secret to making the dish.

“This dish is quite easy to make,” she said. “Anyone can make it following the traditional recipe.”

Trinh said she uses simple ingredients like fresh fish, fish sauce, salt and galangal and makes the fish brown using burnt sugar.

“The special tip is that I spend lots of time to stew the fish so all the spices absorb well into the fish,” she said.

Trinh said the stewing process take up to 13 hours using cast iron saucepans over a moderate temperature.

She has run the business for the past five years and said her father made the dish very well, while her older sisters preferred studying instead of cooking.

Trinh liked cooking and learnt from her father.

“In the past, when food was not so abundant like today,” she recalled, “each family just stewed fish in a small saucepan and cooked it by coal or burnt rice husks.

“But now I stew bigger carp in big saucepans. Each saucepan contains 20kg of fish," she said.

Trinh said she selects the fish very carefully. The grass carps should be very fresh and weigh 5.5-8kg each so that the fish is tender.

She also uses round scad fish from the central province of Quảng Bình. 

Trinh said the most difficult thing when stewing a big saucepan of fish is ensuring all the pieces absorb the spices and are well-cooked while still keeping their original shape.

“To do this, I often put big pieces at the bottom, thin pieces on top,” she said.

“I put the piece of the tail and middle body in a certain order so that when customers prefer which part, I can take it out easily without searching all around the saucepan so  the pieces are not broken in the searching process."

Trinh adds some fatty pork between the fish layers so that the fat absorbs the sauce well and the fish isn't too dry.

“Any dish, to reach a delicious level, depends much on the skills and passion of the cook, not only the proper recipe and materials,” she said.

Stewed fish needs different temperatures for different stages, sometimes it needs a big fire, sometimes small, sometimes without a cover on the saucepan.

“If one doesn’t pay much attention, the result may be quite different to what was expected,” she said.

Trinh said that a cook cannot be in a rush or careless just to make money.

Trinh said some of her customers come in a rush and order fish that is still being cooked, so she tells them to wait or come back later.

“I try to keep my trademark, but more importantly, I want when I give the fish to a customer, it should be marked 10 points perfectly, I don’t like marks like 8,” she said.

Heritage food

Phạm Thị Thanh Hằng, who runs Nghị Hằng Stew Fish Shop at No 1 Cầu Gỗ Street, has another trick for her dish.

Customers flock to Nghị Hằng Stew Fish Shop every afternoon to buy dinner. Photo toquoc.vn

She puts sugarcane at the bottom of the saucepan so that the sweet sugarcane is absorbed into the fish above.

The sugarcane also protects the fish from being burnt.

Hằng’s shop has lots of regular customers, many of whom live far from Hà Nội

“I have bought fish here for many years,” said customer Ngô Thu. “I live in Bắc Ninh Province. I sometimes come here to buy a large box to send to HCM City to my parents so that they don’t miss the Hà Nội delicacy too much."

Hằng’s family has been living near the market for several generations.

Hằng prepares the sugar sauce to make sure it has an attractive colour and fragrance. Photo toquoc.vn

“When I was small, my parents ran a restaurant here,” she recalled. “I cleared tables and stalls and saw my grandmother stew the fish. At that time, our shop offered steamed rice with popular dishes like stewed fish, pork ribs stirred in fat, and stewed pork.”

Phạm Thị Tuyết, 87, is a frequent customer of Hằng’s shop and buys her stewed fish twice a week. Even if Hằng closes for some reason, Tuyết would wait till she opens again to buy stew fish from her.

Hằng said each day she sells up to 200kg of fish.

Hằng shares the work with her family members and hired helpers but she personally makes the nước hàng (burnt sugar sauce).

“I make it myself to make sure it has a beautiful colour and fragrance,” she said.

Each week she makes the sugar sauce once to use throughout the week using more than 1kg of sugar to make more than a litre of sauce in three hours.

She offers also stewed pork and stewed white radish. VNS

The fish should be tender and absorb all the spices while keeping its shape. VNS Photo Hoàng Nam