Up and down the land, there are secrets writhing and squirming in the hidden nooks and crannies of Vietnam. These are sometimes the places that no holiday rep, with all their game-show-host smiles and Chang Beer tank tops, has even heard of and yet, more often than not, they’re far closer than you think. This week, I walked the plank right off the good ship Hanoi and found myself aboard a train, hurtling through a kaleidoscope of half-finished buildings, barren patches of untended arable land and interminable duck farms. The ducks would have to wait, or at least be fortunate enough to survive the coming onslaught until we had chance to get back, because this time we were bound for Nam Dinh, the land of braised fish and slow-cooked dreams.
“I had a chance to visit the village of Nhan Hau, I was on a business trip and during that time I tried the braised fish – I was amazed by how unique it was and how different it tasted, there was none of that stinky fish smell to it, it was like nothing I’d had before.” It was this one life-altering meal that set Nguyen Ba Toan on a very different path from the one he’d taken out of Hai Duong to become a construction engineer. “I was so impressed, it went so well with the rice and then I thought, ‘Why isn’t this famous?’ So I worked to bring this delicious dish to more people.”
With his edible epiphany behind him, Nguyen seized the opportunity to start his own company and for the past five years, Dasavina has been serving up a slow-cooked fishy fantasy that has existed in Nhan Hau for hundreds of years. The apparent absurdity of this sudden about-turn even made it to the local headlines back in 2014.
Now with three fish farms across the village of Nhan Hau and an office based in Hanoi, Nguyen is doing his utmost to not just popularise the historic braised fish, but also to preserve a centuries old recipe and method. “We’re still using the traditional way, we cook the fish in clay pots, we use the Longan wood for the fire and perhaps most importantly, we use ten ingredients in our marinade.” This is no quick-fix meal and there are no shortcuts. Jamie Oliver won’t be serving this up in a 30 minute segment of patronising presumptuous evening television, because the cooking alone takes 16 hours for Nguyen’s braised fish.
“Production usually takes about a day from start to finish, but there are lots of important steps throughout the process, even getting the pots ready can take a few hours because we have to boil them – this cleans them and tests them for the heat of the fire – but we use a cleanser made from limestone powder and water, then we scrub it into the pots.” This, according to Nguyen, prevents the spices from absorbing into the pot and instead sends them on a one-way taste trip straight into the fish, all the while it helps to protect and preserve the pots from the intense fire under the Longan wood.
“The Longan wood, too, are an important element of the traditional way – eventually they turn to charcoal in the fire, so they keep the heat right but without giving off much smoke.” Nguyen explained, with the tone of a man who has clearly invested many a late night into the pursuit of his product. As he talks, there’s a little bit of Captain Ahab creeping out. “The smoke can affect the flavour of the fish, but thankfully due to the density of the Longan wood and the smell they give off, it enhances the flavour of the fish, rather than spoiling it.”
With so much time and energy being poured into this project, even now – in what is supposedly a down season for much of Vietnam – Nguyen is kept busy, but when the Tet holiday rolls around he and his team will work like ants in a firestorm to meet the raging demands of the market. Dasavina has a whole host of options available and a clay pot full of braised fish is probably just the present your father-in-law needed to help forget about the last time when you pissed on the curtains and bled on his rug. 1kg of Nguyen’s efforts will set you back VND400,000, but his luxury hard-to-lift-onto-the-table 5kg offering is a whopping VND1,200,000, but with the level of dedication and work that’s been put into such an irresistibly tasty dish, it’s better just to write the man a blank cheque.
“Our black carp are some of the best freshwater fish in Vietnam, raised on a diet of snails – this helps with the quality of their meat, it keeps them lean and tasty, but we did a lot of experimentation before settling on the black carp, they’re the best we could find.” Nguyen is proud of his fish and rightly so. It’s a traditional dish that dates back to the Tran Dynasty.
“The story is told by word of mouth, but it says that Tran Ba Nghiem, a man who lived in the village of Nhan Hau, created the dish and when the king visited, he gave it as his offering to the king, who in turn loved it. That’s how it became a famous dish.” Nguyen on the other hand isn’t aiming to melt the hearts of kings, but rather he has a wider scope in mind. “It’s starting to be sold across the country, but before you had to know someone in the village or someone visiting the village to get it, but now I’m selling it nationally so that anyone can enjoy it.”
In turn, it’s bolstered the village of Nhan Hau’s sense of self-worth. Besides being the basis for a fictional setting in one of Vietnam’s most legendary short stories, Chí Phèo, the small village that Nguyen’s farms operate in are seeing an upswing in tourism and jobs through his efforts to popularise the dish. “The bigger the demand, the more people I can employ and the more farms I can open, but at the moment I want more people to learn about it, so far 80% of our customers are based in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City – I want to make this an international dish.”
It’s hard to think who wouldn’t be enamoured by the melt-in-the-mouth goddamn joy of a 16 hour braised fish, replete with a traditional clay pot, so I set out with Nguyen to one of his farms to watch how such a divine dish is given flavour and form. The first thing that struck me was the size of the fish. These things are monsters – 5kg apiece at very least – and more than willing to throw that weight around with force. On several occasions we saw them leap triumphantly out of the bowl, thrashing about like a drunk who’d lost a bet, although it wasn’t long before Tran Duc Phong, one of Nguyen’s local fish farmers, effortlessly scooped them back up and returned them to their rightful place on their one-way trip to flavour country.
Tran was calm and unflinching as he dealt the death blow to the fish. It was quite fascinating to see how his actions appeared both brutal and delicate at the same time, certainly we were witnessing a level of skill that Tran had honed over the past 15 years and it was mesmerising.
Then, out came the clay pots, which had already been prepared before our arrival, but now had to be stuffed with 2kg of fish and then an assortment of trimmings. First in was the ginger, which acted as a base coat and then came the strangely delicate – almost intimate – part of the process, where Tran diligently laid the fish to rest in their respective clay pots after weighing up each hunk of flesh. There was an air of ceremonial respect in his work here that was intriguing, possibly representative of the traditional methods that Nguyen had spoken of earlier, or perhaps the attachment of a farmer to any beast he knows he must kill.
The marinade ingredients are Nguyen’s most revered elements of the dish, following the ginger and the fish is where Nguyen earns major bonus points – glorious chunks of bacon go tumbling into the pots, where it too will be slow-cooked into beautiful oblivion. Following the bacon, waterfalls of liquid caramel are ladled out before stock cubes and good ol’ MSG makes a cheeky cameo, but all of this is washed into the dish by a torrent of lime juice. The clay pot looks fit to bulge at this point, but Tran continues to place more ingredients in as though continuing a ritual. He packs the whole lot down with Galingale, which forms a herbal roof that will slowly collapse into the fish and then the first batch of boiling water is added, although this will need to be replenished every 15 minutes over the next 16 consecutive hours. At last, the beacons are lit, the Longan wood catches fire and from here on out, it is all waiting and water.
Sometime later on tonight, Nguyen’s Cá Kho Bá Kiến – his dish is named after the lead antagonist in the story Chí Phèo – will be ready for delivery and could be yours whether you’re up for the hour and a half train ride out of Hanoi or not. Nguyen’s company, Dasavina, offers year-round delivery across Vietnam and if the quality of his braised fish is anything to go by then it probably won’t be long before his dream of creating an international bestseller is realised.
You can get braised fish delivered to your front door in Hanoi by ordering directly from Dasavina.