Story: Nguyet Anh
Photo: Xuan Chinh

The village once known as Vu Dai has been renamed Dai Hoang Village. Located in the Ly Nhan District of Ha Nam province, this village has long been associated with braised fish. Enjoyed year round, this dish is typically dedicated to departed loved ones for their Lunar New Year meal.

Village elders claim that the braised fish trade began in 1981. Thanks to its special taste, the village’s braised fish became a popular dish during the Lunar Tet holidays. The fish is cooked in special terracotta pots obtained from Nghe An. The clay is able to withstand intense heat for up to 20 hours.

The pots’ lids hail from Thanh Hoa and are modelled into domes. Before using them to braise fish, villagers put handfuls of rice into the terracotta pots to “temper” them, then dry them in the sun to enhance their durability.

The fish is traditionally braised over longan wood. This wood is said to reduce the smell and improve the dish’s taste. Rice husks are added to the fire to maintain its heat and keep the fish smouldering.

Villagers select fresh fish, usually black carps weighing from three to five kilograms. The best fish have elongated bodies, small bellies and tiny heads. The cooks remove the heads and tails before braising. Seasoning and spices include ginger, lesser galangal, lemons, wild crab extract, spring onions, pepper and chilli. After being washed, the terracotta pots are lined with galangal to prevent the fish from being scorched.

When the fish’s juices evaporate, the cooks regularly add water, lemon extract and the extracts of other traditional spices to prevent the fish from being scorched. The fish must be kept simmering for 16 to 20 hours. Having prepared this dish for years, just by smelling the pots villagers know whether the fish is too salty or bland. By listening to the simmering they know whether there is too much liquid or too little. Without the addition of any preservatives, braised fish from Dai Hoang Village can last from five to ten days thanks to its braising techniques and natural spices.

Well-braised fish has a glossy dark brown colour, firm flesh and soft bones. The dish has an appetising smell of ginger, spring onions, fish and other spices. After being cooked, the pots of fish are cooled in front of electric fans, then packaged and delivered to customers. Every bit of fish can be eaten.

Older villagers still recall the Tet holidays over 20 years ago, when the economy was still struggling. Between Lunar December 23 and 25, village families had to the dredge local ponds and received a quota of fish per person. People typically asked each other: “Have you braised your fish yet?”

These words reveal the importance that Dai Hoang villagers place on braised fish during Tet. Braised fish is a key New Year’s dish for every house in the village.

Traveling to this village in the run-up to Tet, visitors can observe the locals hard at work. The mouthwatering smell of braised fish fills the village. Visitors can even sign up for workshops and learn how to make the village’s famous specialty.