Saturday, March 25, 2023

Vietnamese Grilled Whole Fish

There are a wide variety of fish dishes in Vietnamese cuisine, which is only to be expected given the country has 3,260 kilometers of coastline. There are also several major rivers that run through the country, such as the Song Da, Song Chiang, and, of course, the Mekong River.

One of the most interesting subset of dishes are the whole fish dishes. Setting aside the relatively easy preparation, I find that it is the sauces that one prepares alongside the whole fish to be one of the truly interesting aspects of Vietnamese whole fish dishes. The sauces provide an extra level of flavor that often enhances whatever spices, herbs and citrus are stuffed into the fish. 

Take, for example, chef and author Charles Phan, who has quite a few whole fish recipes out there. My parents gave me his cookbook, Vietnamese Home Cooking, as a gift. I decided to make the whole fish recipe in that cookbook, which is set forth below. The fish was delicious, but it was that dipping sauce that, for me, completed this dish.

The dipping sauce represents what the Vietnamese call "Ngũ Hànhor the five tastes. It is an excellent balance of those tastes, namely, spice, salt, bitter, sour and sweet. The chiles provide the spice; the lime juice offers the bitterness; the fish sauce contributes both the sour and the salt; and, the sugar provides, as you can guess, the sweet. The balance in this dipping sauce led me to dipping every bite-sized morsel of the fish into the sauce. 


Recipe from Charles Phan, Vietnamese Home Cooking at pg. 181

Serves 2

Ingredients (for the fish):

  • 1 (1 1/2 to 2 pound) whole branzino, cleaned with head and tail intact
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 by 1-inch piece of ginger, cut into thin coins
  • 2 large Thai basil sprigs
  • 2 large cilantro sprigs
  • 3 thin lemon slices
  • 3 thin lime slices
  • 2 tablespoons canola or olive oil

Ingredients (for the dipping sauce):

  • 2 1/2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon peeled and minced fresh ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 1/4 teaspoon minced Thai chile


1. Prepare the grill.  Prepare a hot fire for direct heat grilling in a charcoal grill (you should be able to hold your hand 1 to 2 inches above the grate for only 2 to 3 seconds). When the coals are ready, place a cast iron griddle or large cast iron frying pan on the grill grate and let it preheat until very hot.

2. Prepare the fish. While the fire is reaching temperature, rinse the fish in cold water and pat dry with paper towels. Season the inside with salt and pepper and then stuff the cavity with the ginger, basil, cilantro and lemon and lime slices. Drizzle the oil on both sides of the fish and set aside. 

3. Make the dipping sauce. To make the sauce, in a small bowl, stir together lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, ginger, garlic, and Thai chile until the sugar has dissolved. Set aside.

4. Grill the fish. When the griddle or pan is very hot, add the fish and cook it without moving for about 6 minutes until the skin is a deep golden brown and no longer sticking to the griddle. To check, gently try to lift the fish; of it does not release easily, continue to cook until it does. 

5. Continue to grill the fish. With a large, wide spatula centered at the middle of the fish, flip the fish and cook on the second side until golden brown. After 1 minute, begin checking to see if the fish is done. Insert a knife into the fish and wiggle it gently; the flesh should be barely clinging to the bone. If you feel resistance, continue cooking, repeating the test until the flesh offers no resistance.

6. Finish the dish. Transfer the fish to a plater and serve immediately. Accompany with the dipping sauce. 

Friday, March 17, 2023

Goan Clam Curry

Some say "Goa is where my heart belongs"; but, for me, the saying needs to be amended to read, "Goa is where my stomach belongs." There is something about the cuisine. Goa may be the smallest state in India, with the fourth smallest population of any Indian state. However, its cuisine punches way above its weight, both figuratively and (due to the abundant use of chiles) literally. It is that punch that appeals so much to my gut.

What drew my attention to this cuisine is perhaps one of the most well known of Goan dishes ... Vindaloo. The fiery curry -- in all of its forms (whether pork, lamb, beef of chicken) -- is one of my favorite dishes. Yet, while Vindaloo may be one of the most popular dishes, there is so much more to Goan cuisine. 

This small Indian state lies along the western coastline of India. Its 103 kilometers of coastline offer not only great beaches (from what I have read), but access to a steady source of seafood. This includes fish such as kingfish, mackerel, sardines and even sharks, as well as shellfish like crabs, prawns, lobsters, squid and mussels.

All of this seafood provides the basis for a range of different dishes. These dishes include, by way of example, Fish Curry (Xitti Kodi), Shark Ambot Tik, Samarachi Kodi, and Crab Xacuti. I would not have come across any of these dishes (at least not yet) if not for the fact that I found a recipe for a Goan clam curry. That recipe got me to look further into Goan cuisine, thereby opening the proverbial book on something that I had overlooked for the longest time. 

Source: Times of India

The summer months are often considered the shellfish months in Goa. The bays of Goa - such as Sancoale and Chicalim - are home to oysters, mussels and clams (known as tisreos) that are harvested by both locals and non-locals alike. The high demand for all of this shellfish has resulted in overfishing and degradation of the habitats. It has threatened the existence of clams in these bays, as more juvenile clams are harvested and their habitat is destroyed by the collection methods. 

The alarm bells have sounded in recent years, which has resulted in some responses to what has become a significant decline in the once abundant shellfish. A modest start involved a local biodiversity board's call for the use of handpicking as the only method to collect clams. This call joins other efforts to regulate the size of harvested clams, quotas on the amount to be harvested, and limiting harvests to locals only. 

All of these efforts are just guidelines, and, they will be effective only as long as people are willing to observe them. This requires people to move beyond the shortsightedness of making money now or enjoying these delicacies in the present, so that they will be around for a long time to come. 


Recipe adapted from My Heart Beets

Serves 4


  • 2 tablespoons ghee (or neutral oil)
  • 2 large shallots or 4 small ones finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 inch ginger, minced
  • 2 tablespoons paprika
  • 1 teaspoon coriander powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon Kashmiri chile powder (or more if you want it to be really spicy)
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/2 cup coconut milk
  • 2 pounds small clams, littlenecks
  • 1 lime wedge, plus more for garnish
  • 2 tablespoons cilantro leaves, chopped


1.  Clean the clams. If necessary, soak in cold water for 20 minutes with a big pinch of salt. Lift each clam out of the bowl and rinse with water. (If you are using farmed clams, you can probably just rinse them.)

2. Sauté the aromatics. Melt the ghee in a Dutch oven or heavy pot over medium heat, then add shallots, garlic, ginger and sauté for 6 to 7 minutes. Add the spices then stir.

3. Cook the clams. Add the coconut milk and bring to a gentle boil. Add clams, cover and cook stirring occasionally until the clams are opened, 6 to 8 minutes. Discard any unopened clams. 

4. Finish the dish. Serve the clams in bowls with the cooking liquid and squeeze lime wedge overtop. Garnish with cilantro. 


Friday, March 10, 2023

Whole Roasted Fish with Gullah Mopping Sauce

"Fishing is the heart of the Gullah Geechee People."

- Marquetta Goodwine, Chieftess of the Gullah Geechee Nation

It is said that, apart from the cuisine of the indigenous peoples,  Gullah cuisine may be one of the oldest foodways in North America. However, unlike native cuisine, Gullah cooking draws its roots from across the oceans. Those roots can be found in the ingredients used in, and preparation of dishes from across the African continent, from Senegal to Angola and beyond. I explored some of that history as it related to the use of rice in my post about Carolina Crab Rice.

Another important part of that history lies with the impact that  Gullah cuisine has had upon the ingredients and preparation of dishes in North America. For instance, there has been a long tradition of barbecue in Gullah cooking. The Gullah (and Geechee) live along the Atlantic coastline from North Carolina to northern Florida. Thus, the centerpiece of Gullah barbecue revolves around pork, particularly the whole hog. The barbecue is an event, centered around family first and then the pig, with sauce being little more than an afterthought

Somewhat ironically, it is the sauce that opened the first door into Gullah barbecue for me. I had spent quite a bit of time trying to find an authentic Gullah (or Geechee) barbecue recipe. My research led me to this recipe, Whole Roasted Fish with Gullah Mopping Sauce. By definition, a mopping sauce is a thin flavored liquid that a pitmaster "mops" over the smoked meat. The purpose of a mopping sauce is to add additional layers of flavor while helping to ensure that the meat remains moist through the smoking process. However, the use of fish seemed out of place (in my humble opinion) for Gullah cuisine, because everything I have read emphasized how pork was the principal protein for barbecue. 

In fact, the use of fish, even in a smoked preparation, is not so out of the ordinary in Gullah cuisine. The Gullah and Geechee have been fishing the local waters of the Carolinas since the 1600s. Indeed, many of the Gullah and Geechee were driven to the marshes, coastal inlets and islands, thereby making fishing an important means of survival. Put differently, fish plays an important role in the diet of the Gullah Geechee. Indeed, it was the primary source of protein in their diet prior to the Civil War. More importantly, as at least one study found, the Gullah Geechee are "motivated to fish by childhood experiences that were frequently interwoven into their daily lives and by a sense of cultural preservation of the role and value fishing and fish consumption carries in this population."   

In the end, it was an interesting insight into a culture that I know very little about. My hope is that this small insight will hopefully serve as the springboard into a deeper exploration of Gullah Geechee culture and cuisine. Only time will tell. 


Recipe from the James Beard Foundation

Serves 3

Ingredients (for the fish):

  • 3 dressed whole trout (1 1/2 pound each)
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper or sweet paprika
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • 8 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 2 lemons, each sliced into 4 rings
  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes
  • 1 cup of mopping sauce

Ingredients (for the mopping sauce):

  • 2 1/2 cups apple cider vinegar
  • 1 8-ounce can tomato juice
  • 5 1/4-inch-wide paper thin slices of lemon rind (only the yellow rind, not white pith)
  • 1 cup ketchup
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon yellow mustard
  • 2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons crushed red pepper
  • Dash of hot sauce
1. Prepare the mopping sauce. Whisk the ingredients together in a sauce pot over medium heat and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove the pot from the heat and let cool. Store this mopping sauce refrigerated in a jar for up to six months.

2. Prepare the trout. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Pat the fish dry inside and out with paper towels. Make 3 diagonal cuts through the skin on each side of the fish and place on a rimmed sheet pan. Generously and evenly pour the olive oil over the fish. Season the inside and out with cayenne pepper (or paprika), garlic powder, salt and turmeric. Gently stuff the thyme sprigs and lemon rings into the fish's belly. Scatter the tomatoes in the pan and pour the mopping sauce over the fish. 

3. Roast the fish. Roast the fish for 25 to 30 minutes, basting every 8 to 10 minutes, until a thermometer inserted in the thickest part reads 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove the fish from teh oven and serve immediately. 


Friday, March 3, 2023

Dai Carrot Salad

The name "Dai" refers to several groups of the Tai people, including the Tai Lu and Tai Koen. These groups live principally in the southern southwestern regions of China's Yunnan province.  These groups also live in neighboring countries, such as Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. They are one of the many cultures within China that are profiled by cookbook authors Jeremy Alford and Naomi Duguid in their book, Beyond the Great Wall.

Given where they live, it comes as little surprise that the cuisine of the Dai bears some resemblances to the food and dishes of those neighboring countries. Alford/Daguid at 13.  For example, Dai cuisine often features a lot of fresh herbs and vegetables, creating a colorful vibrancy to many of the dishes. Indeed, as one Dai chef - Mi Wei - observed, "without herbs there is no Dai Food." That quote comes from an interesting article on Not Quite Nigella, which explores Dai cuisine further than I can do with this post.

Back to Alford and Duguid, they observe that many Dai recipes are also are known for combining tart and sour tastes with hot and spicy flavors. Thus, there is a significant presence of various chiles, black peppercorns, and Sichuan peppercorns in Dai recipes. This dish - which is a rather simple recipe for a carrot salad - represents that balance. The balance comes from one ingredient: the pickled peppers. I did not have access to store bought pickled chiles, so I pickled my own. (Recipes can be easily obtained with an Internet search engine.) The vinegar and heat from the chiles features prominently in the dish, with the remaining ingredients (the soy sauce, rice vinegar and roasted sesame oil) working to round out the harshness from the pickled chiles. 

I do have a few more Dai recipes lined up in the queue, which will offer additional opportunities to explore this cuisine a little further. The use of chiles has definitely caught my attention, as well as the overlap of the Dai cuisine with the foods of Thailand and Laos.


Recipe from Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, Beyond the Great Wall, at pg. 83

Serves 4


  • 1 pound large carrots
  • About 2 tablespoons pickled red chiles or store bought pickled chiles, cut into 1/2 inch slices
  • 3 scallions, mashed and sliced into 1/2 inch lengths
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon roasted sesame oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons of coriander leaves


1. Prepare the carrots. Peel the carrots. Using a cleaver or chef's knife, slice them very thin (1/8 inch thickness if possible) on a 45-degree angle. You should have 3 cups. in a medium saucepan, bring 4 cups of water to a boil. Toss in the carrot slices and stir to separate them. Cook just until slightly softened and no longer raw, about 3 minutes. Drain.

2. Prepare the salad. Transfer the carrots to a bowl and let cool slightly, then add the chiles and scallion ribbons and toss to mix. 

3. Prepare the dressing. Whisk together the soy sauce, rice vinegar, and sesame oil. Pour over the salad while the carrots are still warm. Stir or toss gently to distribute the dressing, then turn the salad on to a serving plate or into a wide shallow bowl. 

4. Finish the dish. Serve the salad warm or at room temperature. just before serving, sprinkle on the salt and toss gently, then sprinkler on the coriander and toss again.