Problem with speared fish

My fishmonger from Phan Thiet sold me a parrot fish and a red snapper (tai) which had been speared. Problem with speared fish is that you can’t eat the speared part – so in this case, half a fillet is gone.  On the plus side, the blood had been drained at sea, so the remaining flesh is translucent and sashimi quality. I like my “tai” fish skin on.   

I learned from a sushi chef in Los Angeles – his name was Shige – that if you pour hot water on a cold piece of snapper’s skin for a few seconds, then dunk the fish in iced water to stop the cooking, you can have red snapper sashimi with skin on. It has a fatty and crunchy texture compared to the soft flesh. Try it sometimes.

  

In any case, don’t buy speared fish if you have another choices. I hate wasting good fish.

  

Cá Gáy | Emperor Fish.

Cá gáy không biết tại sao có cái tên như vậy, nhưng thịt ăn rất ngon. Còn có tên khác là cá chép biển. Có nhiều ở biển miền Trung, Phan Thiết, Phú Quốc.

   

Mua thử cá Phú Quốc từ chợ gần nhà. Đi tàu từ PQ xong đi đường xe từ Hà Tiên lên SG. Nên không tươi như mong muốn.
Mua thử cá Phú Quốc từ chợ gần nhà. Đi tàu từ PQ xong đi đường xe từ Hà Tiên lên SG. Nên không tươi như mong muốn..

Phu Quoc island

I remember Phu Quoc island.

I fell in love with this tropical island from the first moment I landed on its tiny airport by the sea years ago, breathed its sea breezes and a suggestive hint of sweet nuoc mam in the air for the first time, and let its ocean colors caress my eyes all the way back to the resort and for days and dreams to come.

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To me, Phu Quoc island is one of the greatest gifts Nature has to offer Vietnam.

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Even on cloudy days, Sao Beach still has its own calm mystique, and still inviting of a swim.

Sao beach is a glassy swimming pool – hundreds of feet out into the sea and you are still just chest deep in that crystal clear, pristine water. You look around, and it’s just you, the seas, and an occasional little fishing boat taking its time strolling back to shore.

Sadly, on one trip I saw some people go down to the beach just to sing Karaoke, fully dressed in slacks and collars but with straw hats on. If you go to Phu Quoc island and not feel compulsory to get as close to nakedness as possible and swim in its azure seas, something has gotta be wrong with you, and the world.

The famous sardines of Phu Quoc
The famous sardines of Phu Quoc

The sardines of Phu Quoc is its own specimen. It does not have any fishy smell. Its color a ruby red, translucent and promising of great taste. You have to try the “Gỏi Cá Phú Quốc” – I travel just to have it there.

I have also found myself waking up in the middle of the night, hands trembling like a crack fiend, texting random friends or relatives to go to Phu Quoc with me just to enjoy other gift from the sea, to be enjoyed exactly this way, in this exact location:

Uni
Fruits of the sea
Phu Quoc uni
Now $1 a pop. But I know a local fisherman who usually charge me bulk-rate. Plus he lets me dive for my own uni and take out his boat. After 2 trips I made a new friend.
Grilled uni
Locals also likes Uni grilled. For this version, I usually scoop the whole thing out for rice topping.
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I remember catching half of these with my brother after 1 hour diving
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Our catch. We ended up throwing back most of the shellfish, after tasting the small abalone that I caught. Now knowing how abalones are being over harvested, I no longer eat abalone in Phu Quoc or anywhere (I never liked them much anyway compared to conch or other shellfish).

The black uni of Phu Quoc – now being heavily abused by people who don’t know any better – has a deep nutty taste. Please, never take off the island, as it would go bad easily because locals still don’t know how to preserve them. Just enjoy all the uni you wish at Phu Quoc, especially when you come out to one of the many smaller islands to its northern tip for snorkeling, feet in the sand and the uni only been washed by that same pristine salt water it lived in just 5 minutes before – it’s an other worldly experience that makes me giggle like a teenager being asked out by the hottest girl in the school.

Sunset over Ham Tien fishing village
Sunset over Ham Tien fishing village

If you are into browsing seafood market like me, visit the Ham Tien fishing village. Walk out into the fishing pier – all the way. You might run into children who offer to sell you mantis shrimps. Don’t worry about being scammed, this is not Vung Tau. Have them lift the shrimps out of the ocean, take a quick look to make sure they are all alive, then buy them all. Don’t weigh them (they sell them by the bag full, no scale). Then take them back to the little eatery on land for boiled seafood & beer. They charge you $1 to boil the shrimp but I rarely have to pay this fee as I usually order tons of beer and keep the owner happy.

The Seafood tower of Phu Quoc island
The Seafood tower of Phu Quoc island

I always buy fish sauce – the untreated, salty kind – as gifts. The back label should say two ingredients: “anchovies, salt”, and nothing else.

(BTW, fuck you, Masan Group, for shamelessly advertising your chemical-laden fishy slush as fish sauce…)

This is a true story that speaks for the quality of Nam Ngu, the mass-produced crap that Masan Group labels as fish sauce: on one of my recent visits, I was given a tour by a local, 3rd-generation, fish sauce maker in Phu Quoc island. He showed me the first-press, a thick, caramel color, fatty sauce that is full of umami, and said “1st press, the best…use it for dipping sauce, drizzle on rice or boil pork”. The we walked down to a second vat, being dripped half full of a thinner version of nuoc mam, and he said “2nd press…use it for cooking, stewing, marinating, etc”…And so on down to the 4th batch – the industrial quantity sold to restaurants etc. Then he said “the 5th batch we normally don’t use, but recently sell it to Masan Group to flavor their fish sauce”.

What about the 6th press, I asked?

He responded, as a matter of factly, “there’s no 6th batch, it’s fertilizer after that”. Let me quote him, in Vietnamese, so you have the full effect: ” sau đó là bã cá làm phân bón cho tiêu thôi”.

I tried not to laugh. He did not mean it as a joke.

Anyhow, back to the happy post: another thing you should always buy to bring home is Phu Quoc black peppers. Don’t by the expensive white/acorn pepper, advertised as the best ones (they were, because supposedly the birds and squirrels eat only the best red peppers then farmers collect their droppings to collect the left-over white peppers…but now lots of the farmers just bleach the black peppers to have the same effect). Phu Quoc pepper is picked ripe red – so when you crush them, you will surely see a hint of red color. And the aroma makes you want to throw away all of your supermarket pepper down the drain…along with any memory of having ever tasted “black pepper”.

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I remember Phu Quoc island like I would remember an innocent, simpler time in life. Only one hour flight away from mainland, but it is so far removed from the daily hustles of HCMC. In the best sense of the phrase, you can lose your sense of place, and time. It has its own map, not the S-shape you would normally associate with Vietnam. Its day consists of morning swims, afternoon naps, evening drinks, happy seafood meals…randomized to no particular order except your own inner instincts. Its people charming and honest. The tourism developed just enough to balance out creature comfort and the blessings of natural elements.

Phu Quoc
Phu Quoc

On some selfish level, I hope Phu Quoc remains just as it is, or at least taking its sweet time with development, like a beautiful girl growing up but never loses her innocence, her charms discovered only if you take your time walking down her beaches, to appreciate her for who she is and always has been,  even if that means forgoing all the worldly standards in your life, the “stars” in your resorts, the cleanliness of your silverware – only if you deserve her.

Chợ cá Long Hải | Quick trip to Long Hai Fish Market

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See the sea snakes? It’s local delicacy. Men like to soak them in rice wine for some some of aphrodisiac drink. I have not tried either.

Dạo 1 vòng chợ Long Hải kiếm con ốc gai làm gỏi cho Vũ. Kiếm không ra ốc gai, nhưng đi chợ cá lúc nào cũng thú vị.

When I am in my home town for the weekends, I usually make quick trips to the fish market to stock up for the week. Long Hai is located just down the beach and the historic fishing village of Phước Tỉnh. The seafood there is fresh but you have to know what you want, because you can get lost in the variety – and you can’t ask many questions before the fish mongers get annoyed.

Anyhow, some pictures from the trip to look for a particular kind of conch for my little brother. I could not find it, but had a good time browsing anyhow.

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Happy playtime!
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Horseshoe crab. They say eating them the wrong way can kill you. I caught much larger ones fishing in the US. Never tried eating them, simply because I’d rather eat blue crabs or mud crabs.
Live green mussels are caught from local water – very tasty and and only $2 a kilo. The Sò Dương and Scallops are not local – they are transported in from Phan Thiet and no longer live.
Thau bên trái, gần cái cân là ngêu biển – khác ngêu cần giờ – đủ màu sắc và vị ngọt đậm hơn. Nấu khỏi nêm muối. Nếu hên thì gặp ngêu không ngậm cát, ăn tuyệt vời.

 

Where I buy my seafood in D1, HCMC

I am going to let you in on a little secret. There is a place in District 1, HCMC, where you can get pristine, often sashimi-fresh quality, seafood straight from Phan Thiet.

Between all that concrete and high rises, tucked away in a little  street, is the best small seafood market you can ever find around D1, if not HCMC. You just have to know the system a little – mostly the timing of when the fish come in, and be nice to the purveyors  – they are super sweet ladies, I would be surprised if anyone not get along with them.

The owner knows I am on the way. I always call her in advance, around 4pm, to see if the shipment from Phan Thiet has come in. “What’s fresh today”. The responses, almost code-like, come on the phones in quick successions because she’s usually very busy unpacking the box at the time: squid, sand goby, anj, markerel, shrimps…Just as quickly and cryptic, I tell her what I want and how I want them cleaned, if at all. The whole conversation usually takes 1 min.

I usually arrive around 7pm. Even though the stuff I ordered is already ready to pick up, I always park and come in for another look at the seafood. It’s always great to see what the sea offers for the day. Every time it’s different, but from Phan Thiet, the mackerels, cá đục, squids, wild-caught cobia, king mackerel (cá thu), and Tom Đất (especially around Winter) are consistently good.  Some days there would be great red snappers, too.

The seafood is arranged in a glass display case – like the one you’d see in a sushi shop, only bigger. Please treat the fish with respect – don’t throw them around or dig too roughly into the shrimp basket. Ask questions – the ladies would happily answer them for you, and even show you how to cook the fish.

One of the owner ladies handling a jumbo squid. Still alive after the 7-hour trip on ice. The suction cups would grab your arms - always a good sign when you buy squids.
One of the owner ladies handling a jumbo squid. Still alive after the 7-hour trip on ice. The suction cups would grab your arms – always a good sign when you buy squids.
Part of the day's shipment
Part of the day’s shipment

Bring some cash. They don’t take credit card. The price is quite reasonable, though – sometimes even cheaper than supermarket prices.

All the fish are fresh, never been treated or salted. I even buy them to bring back to the US for my family, because they miss some of the local fish only available in Vietnam.

This fish is super tasty but very rare. I will have to look up name for it.
This fish is super tasty but very rare. I will have to look up name for it.

The place is called Vuon Que. It’s 129 Nguyen Cong Tru, D1. They also sell vegetable – also organic, but nothing to brag about compared to the fish there.

Cá Đối | Grey Mullet

Every time I see fresh grey mullet, I always buy them.

When I go to the beach, I buy lots of them for the freezer. In the supermarket, I sometimes see them, but I am not sure if they have been soaked in preservatives or not.

Cá Đối
Fresh off the net. We often leave the scales on for young mullets, and just fry them whole.

Their flesh is very “lành” – never seen anyone allergic to grey mullet fish – you people say you can feed them to young children (you just have to be careful in taking out all the bones).

Found where the river meets the ocean, or all around the shorelines of Vietnam, there are two kinds you can find:

– The round-bodied ones: they look like silvery tubes.

– The flat bodied ones: the bodies look a bit flat. You can see how fatty they are compared to the round-bodied ones.

Always go for the flat bodied mullets. They are much tastier.

Grilling fresh grey mullet with my uncle
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After descaling, they are ready to go. These mullets are from Phan Thiet. They are bigger than the river version. The one at the bottom carries a lot of roe – which is a prized delicacy all over the world. But the meat of roe mullet is not very sweet.

The super-fresh mullets, you can “làm gỏi” (ceviche salad) – it has a sweet, crunchy texture, beautiful. My mom likes to “kho” them with a little fish sauce, or make soup in the summer.

My uncles and I like them grilled on the charcoal. We sometimes carry a jug of rice wine to the beach, and spend a few bucks for the fishermen for 1-2 kilo of the young mullets, and nhậu into the sunset, between swims. Grey mullets never leave you feel heavy stomach. Rather, it makes you feel great inside.

Pot Shrimps -Tôm Đất

How Vietnamese like to eat their fresh shrimps: boiled and with salt/pepper with a little dash of lime and some chillies for heat. When you boil, just boil enough until it's translucent. We are talking about 2 mins, max.
How Vietnamese like to eat their fresh shrimps: boiled and with salt/pepper with a little dash of lime and some chilies for heat. When you boil, just drop them in soft-boiling water enough until it’s translucent. We are talking about 2 mins, max.

 

Tom Dat
Just add beer

I love the pot shrimps of Ba Ria and greater Vung Tau/Phan Thiet region. They are called “Tôm Đất” – literally translated as “earth shrimps” as fishermen like to believe they are born out of the earth on rainy days.

You can find them all around the South – from Cà Mau (I have had them there, too – charbroiled with ton of rice wine with some farmers) .  Sometimes people travel from Cần Giờ to Saigon to sell them at the morning markets, so you can look for them  there. But I still like the ones in my hometown best because I always get them alive and jumping on early mornings taking a stroll down the beach or biking along the river.

You can not farm them. No one has tried. You will not find them in supermarkets, because of their limited quantity and most Vietnamese people will not buy “Tôm Đất” if they are dead.

They are small – the size of your pinky finger. In Phan Thiet, they grow a little bigger towards November and full of red roe around that time. They are also called “Tôm Chì” because of their lead-color shell. There are no stripes. On the shell, you can see some tiny spots like salt and pepper. The shells are hard, which makes for an easy peel.

When you walk down the fish/shrimps aisle of your local markets in Vietnam, you might see a merchant next to a bucket of live shrimp – look inside and see if you recognize the little Pot Shrimps as described. If it’s Tom Dat, grab at least a kilo. Pick only the live ones.

People eat them boiled, charcoal-grilled (each one grill his own), gỏi (ceviche salad with lots of lime), peeled and dropped into soups. Never try to deep fry them like with white shrimps or Tiger, because the hard shells would make for an unpleasant textures.

Or – you can do it like the locals do: boil quickly, eat quickly, dash of lime and salt/pepper/chilies, with beer.

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This is not a picture of a Tôm Đất but some wild-caught  red-legged shrimp from Phu Quoc island. Now that’s another kind of famous shrimps due to its super-sweet taste and special roe.
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Fresh off the nets in Phan Thiet. This is Tom Dat.  Note the dark colors and small sizes.
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Tom Dat two ways: sashimi-styled, and boiled. Even the fishermen of Vietnam, who have never been to a Japanese sushi restaurants, would advise you that “Tôm Đất”  is OK to eat raw and no other kind of shrimps deserves this special treatment. I have seen one pop one in the mouth off the fishing net to demonstrate his point. For sashimi, I usually peel them, then wash them twice: once in a salted water solution, then use a chopstick to rinse in a bowl of drinking water + crushed ice + 1 table spoon of salt + 1 shot of sake for taste, then pat dry. If you are careful, you can also freeze them for 24 hours before eating them.

London-USA-Vietnam, 2003

Notes from the wandering days in 2003 – 3 countries in 3 months. Brief stop in the US involved losing the much-loved BMW, then finding the lost car in a shady ‘hood 2 miles away.

Vietnam. Day 13: The EMZs.

I just realized that I am addicted to the electric mosquitoes zapper
(let’s call it the EMZ). No self-respecting Vietnamese family can live
without a couple of these now. It looks like a little badminton
racquet with three layers of metal net. The outer two layers protect
your fingers from getting electrocuted (but I heard many children and
adults have managed to stick their fingers through and get a nice
jolt), while the fine inner net roasts the vicious mosquitos doing
their usual 5pm/am fly-by. After about 30 mins of non-stop mosquitoes
swatting action, you can just plug it in to recharge.

When the sun comes down over the little park in front of my house, you
can hear the crackling “pzzzing” sounds throughout the neighborhood as
my neighbors make good use of their EMZs arsenal. From afar, it looks
like they are playing badminton with an invisible ball that flies
everywhere. It looks effortless, unless you are a newbie to the trade,
who uses too much force unnecessarily. Come closer, and you can smell
the slight aroma of bugs being BBQed. That cracking sound is now music
to my ears. Only one year ago I still had to swat mosquitoes the
old-fashioned and less digfnifying way: self-slapping. The downside of
slapping oneself in the dark in hope of killing a feeding mosquito is
the very act itself. It is just very sad. Unless you are an expert,
you usually don’t feel the itch until the bug has done sucking its
fill, resulting in a bloody mess when you slap it (and yourself) with
all your might. When I grew up, we had to wear white shirts to school,
and it was rare to see a uniform back in the days without at least one
recognizable mosquito’s bloodstain on it.

Those frustrating days are gone. At dawn I patrol my house with my
trusted EMZ, kicking the shoeracks and shaking the bookshelves so the
mosquitoes come flying out. Then it’s Zaap zaap zaap…joing the
neighborhood’s orchestrar with a vengeance. After I am done inside the
house, I would go to the garden and do a little preventive
mosquito-zapping. My favorite spot is above the little fish pond: the
fish loves the roasted mosquitoes as they come raining down from the
sky. Yup, to these guppies I must be God shooting out thunder bolts
from my left arm.

And lightning stick only costs VND 35,000, or roughly $3.

When my mom takes out the trash or my sister does dishes at night, I
volunteer to be their escort with my EMZ. Earlier I sucessfully
defended my mom as she left the house for a little walk, but I myself
got bitten on the forehead. It was a superficial bite, but it hurt my
feelings because I let that happen while being properly armed.

It’s 8:00 pm. The hood is quiet now, but I know they are just charging
their EMZs, and out there the mosquitoes are still hovering above my
little fish pond. When the raining season comes in a couple of months,
the battle against mosquitoes will get even more intense…too bad I
won’t be there to be part of the action, but I know my little sister
will do me proud.

Happy New Year to my friends near and far. Goodnight and call me if
the bugs do bite.

——–

Vietnam. Day 14: Helmets For Rent.

Here I was sitting in the middle of Saigon and all of its chaos of
an everage Thursday morning, surrounded by almost all of the college
roomates from the States. We were just having coffee and eating up a
storm of mi` and bu’n and che` and really just letting it sink it: the
fact that we are all here, almost all of us.

Tom couldn’t join us. The family’s bamboo factory business is too
far away. But I visited him two days earlier with Aaron. I let out a
happy “What the heo?!!” as I found my roomate of my Sophomore year in
college, a nappy-haired dude chasing down my car on the red-dirted
street of Long Khanh. He was holding a roll of rice straws under one
arm, and a monkey in a green sack on the other. You see he was
supposed to meet me up in a coffee shop, but I got a txt message on my
rented mobile “Sorry I am running late. I am buying a monkey but they
lost the key to the cage.” His USC anthropology professor would be
proud to learn that he’s trying to mate monkeys in this little red,
dusty corner of Vietnam.

I took the car that day, but I like riding the little motorcycles
better. I don’t like wearing the helmet in this hudmity though. The
cops are cracking down on people who don’t protect their noggins, so I
put my helmet on before reaching a police checkpoint (the people
coming from the opposite direction will tell you if there’s one coming
up via hand signal). But not many Vietnamese people can afford
helmets, so along the highways you can see people renting out helmets
right before a police checkpoint. For VND10,000 (roughly 60 cents)
they’d let you borrow a helmet to wear pass the checkpoint, then some
dudes with a big trashbag will collect the helmet from you not too far
down the road. It’s better than paying a fine but not worth it if you
do a lot of highway travelling. The helmets for rent are crappy,
too…and I am sure the cops can kinda tell after a dozen people
passing by wearing the same fricking helmet with the same scratches
and markings.

Muahahahah…it’s like a dark comedy.

Somehow it just feels like home.