Snakehead Chả Cá Lã Vọng

What do you do with an invasive species?

Eat it!

Snakeheads (Frankenfish, or as National Geographic named them, “fishzilla“) are creepy, invasive fish that have been introduced into the Chesapeake and surrounding tributaries. They’re creepy not only because they are fierce predatory swimmers with rows of spiny teeth, but they can walk on land. They breath air through their gills and can survive on terra firma for up to four days, as long as they’re wet. They’re tough fish. They’ve been known to travel 1/4 mile by scooting along on their fins and wriggling their bodies through marshes. Disrupting our Chesapeake Watershed ecosystem, a single female can lay up to 75,000 eggs in a year. Yikes.

They do have one predator though. And thankfully, snakeheads are rather tasty to eat.

This 31’ northern snakehead was caught by Zach Ditmars on August 5, 2018 at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, just south of Cambridge, MD.

And there is the beauty we are about to eat. Many thanks to Zach Ditmars, Design Manager for Spinsheet Publishing Company, for his generous contribution to Galley Pirates’ booty.

Snakeheads are indigenous to Asia. They have firm white meat similar to tilapia or cod and are a staple in many Asian dishes. Chả Cá Lã Vọng is one of those dishes. A restaurant in Hanoi with its namesake has been operating for over 130 years and serves only one dish, Chả Cá Lã Vọng. There’s an old Vietnamese saying that this is “one dish you need to try before you die!”

Chả Cá Lã Vọng

Jump to Recipe

3-4″ fresh turmeric
1 tablespoon ground turmeric
2 inch fresh peeled ginger or galangal
2 teaspoons fish sauce (nuoc mam)
4 Snakehead fish fillets or other firm white fish
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 and 1/2 bunches scallions, slivered into 3″ long pieces
1 bunch dill, stems discarded, fronds coarsely chopped

1 package Vietnamese or Thai rice noodles (also called rice stick)
1 head Bibb or Boston lettuce
½ cup each cilantro leaves, mint leaves and Thai basil leaves
1/2 cup chopped roasted salted peanuts
Small bowls of nuoc cham (recipe followiing)

Cut the snakehead into 2″ pieces.

Next, make the paste of turmeric and ginger. Traditionally this is done with a food processor. But since I don’t have one on board I found this fine grater to work very well. Grate the turmeric and ginger into a paste. You’ll want to end up with about a half cup. Transfer to a stainless-steel or glass bowl as the turmeric stains everything. Add the powdered turmeric and fish sauce. Place the snakehead chunks in the marinade and rub mixture all over fish. It’s best to wear gloves to avoid turmeric stains. Refrigerate for at least one hour or over night.

Meanwhile, prepare the sauce that accompanies this dish, nuoc cham. This can be made in advance.

Nuoc Cham

¼ cup Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce (nuoc mam)
3-4 garlic cloves, pressed
2-3 cayenne peppers, minced
⅓ cup fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons superfine sugar
2 tablespoons water

Juice 1 lime. Press the garlic cloves and mince the cayenne peppers. Combine all ingredients in a jar and shake well. Refrigerate.

Chop the scallions into 2-3 inch pieces. Slice lengthwise into long slivers. Roughly chop the dill, removing large stems. Mince the mint, Thai basil and cilantro and set aside for serving.

Chả Cá Lã Vọng is traditionally prepared by either grilling or baking the fish first, then guests fry their own on gas burners set on tables. It’s not necessary to pre-cook, but we like to stick with tradition so I’m going to bake the fish first. Preheat your galley oven to 400º. Lay a non-stick sheet of aluminum foil on a baking sheet. Bake in your preheated oven for 8-10 minutes. Remove to a dish while you prepare the rice noodles and stir fry.

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Place the rice noodles in the water and boil until al dente, about 5 minutes. Drain.

Place bib lettuce on individual plates. With tongs, lay cooked rice noodles on the lettuce.

In a large skillet, heat up the canola oil. Fry the snakehead pieces for 1-2 minutes per side. Add the dill and scallions, turn off the heat and stir the ingredients together until the greens have softened a bit.

Spoon the Chả Cá Lã Vọng on each plate, on top of the noodles.

Throw some chopped peanuts, minced cilantro, Thai basil and mint on top and serve…

…with spoonfuls of nuoc cham and chop sticks.

Thank you, Zach, for taking one more Snakehead out of the Chesapeake ecosystem. And for giving us the opportunity to have this delicious Vietnamese meal traditionally made with Snakehead fish.

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