The best recipes are never found in a cookbook or on some questionable online food listicle, and this is especially true for Vietnamese cuisine, renowned for being characterised by recipes that have been passed down and perfected through generations, usually originating from a stroke of culinary genius by a woman in the family. In Cha Ca Thang Long’s case, that woman happens to be Nguyen Thi Bich Hop, whose lifelong passion for cooking has resulted in a restaurant that has been open for over 20 years, famed amongst locals and one that tourists regularly make pilgrimages to in order to taste a single dish: a Hanoian fish speciality called chả cá.
The dish originated around 100 years ago in the country’s capital by a local Vietnamese family. Upon learning of the dish, Nguyen put her extended culinary expertise to work, believing she could improve the original recipe, and creating one of her own. Cha Ca Thang Long was in fact only the second restaurant to open in Hanoi that served the now iconic fish and Nguyen has spent years perfecting their signature flavour and secret shrimp sauce that has built their reputation to what it is today.
Nguyen’s cooking talents were developed thanks to her mother’s culinary skills, skills that were honed in a more tumultuous period during the war where ingredients were scarce and one had to be inventive in their creations. This resourcefulness instilled in Nguyen was exactly how she built the foundations for her restaurant, which originally served a variety of dishes, but eventually scaled down to focusing only on chả cá in order to dedicate the time and energy required into making it the best it could possibly be. Nguyen also believed that the dish was an excellent option to serve as it was balanced, healthy and nutritious and had all the components to become a staple dish in the Hanoian diet. Following on the tradition of family-run businesses, it seems only right that Nguyen’s daughter Trinh Thu Huong, who is now the restaurant’s manager, has been involved with Cha Ca Thang Long since she was 17.
Today there are dozens of restaurants dotted around the city all claiming to serve the best chả cá in town, and although this could suggest it is now an overcrowded market, Trinh is confident that Thang Long’s refined recipe is what keeps customers coming back.
“When the restaurant first opened there were very few people doing what we do, and it took a while for us to get steady clients. Now there is a lot more competition, but it’s something we think is a good way to develop and continuously improve our recipe – paying attention to every single detail plays an important part.”
The star ingredient of the chả cá dish is undoubtedly the fish, specifically a species of catfish called cá lăng (Hemibagrus Wyckii in English) which is caught in Hanoi. On top of that, galangal, garlic, onion and fish sauce are also added in a secret ratio of quantities to give it its signature flavour. The fish is pre-grilled in the restaurant’s kitchen, and then heated up with dill and spring onion on the customer’s table under a heated wok, where a waiter clutching chopsticks will swoop in every few minutes with a few lightening speed wrist flicks to ensure the fish is fried to a golden crispy perfection.
In order to complete the fish, it is to be eaten with rice noodles, a handful of peanuts and herbs and another class Hanoian key component – fermented shrimp paste. Trinh is coy in revealing the exact ingredients that go into the sauce, adding that for some foreigners it could taste a little too strong, but is resolute in the fact that it is this secret sauce that makes the dish so exceptional at Cha Ca Thang Long.
After being in the chả cá business for so many years, Trinh attests that she can taste the subtle differences in other restaurant’s recipes in a heartbeat. “The ratio of ingredients, especially in the fish sauce, can vary a lot. I’ll only eat chả cá maybe twice a week, but I have to try it every single day to ensure that it is up to our standards. When it comes to cooking, you can smell it or look at the dish, but you won’t know if it is cooked in the right way until you taste it.”
Thang Long’s legendary chả cá can be found at 21 Duong Thanh, Cua Dong, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi.