This non-traditional take on cha ca la vong or Vietnamese turmeric fish is the perfect healthy weeknight dinner. Not only do I change up the ingredients but I also chose to use a different cooking method to make it a little bit healthier than the traditional dish. The resulting recipe is something I continue to go back to on a weekly basis.
I have been on a serious Vietnamese kick recently because it is one of the few kinds of food that provides me comfort. As I continue to write this blog, I’ve discovered more and more of the cuisine, and I love that. Currently, I’ve made a majority of the most popular dishes, so now, I am reaching deep into Vietnamese cuisine for my inspiration. I’ve also made modern takes on my favorite recipes like my garlic butter salmon vermicelli bowl which is a different take on vermicelli bowls.
This recipe for Vietnamese Turmeric Fish is based on a dish from Hanoi called cha ca la vong. When I first read all the ingredients for the dish, I was like “wow no one is going to be able to make this” because some of the ingredients are very traditional. So I decided to tweak this recipe to make it more accessible to people who might not have access to an Asian grocery store or live in Vietnam. This is my version of cha ca la vong.
Where does this recipe come from?
Cha ca la vong translates to grilled fish. It is a dish that comes from Hanoi where it is known simply as cha ca. This dish is typically made with snakehead fish marinated in turmeric, sugar, and other seasonings. It is grilled before it is brought to your table and then fried at your table to give it a crispy texture. The dish is then topped with fresh dill and eaten with vermicelli noodles, crispy sesame rice paper, toasted peanuts, and a shrimp paste dipping sauce. Like I mentioned, a lot of the ingredients like the shrimp paste dipping sauce are not accessible to people who don’t live in Vietnam or near an Asian grocery store, so I changed it. Some of the changes I made are:
- I substituted tilapia for snakehead fish because snakehead isn’t available in the US. Another good option is catfish.
- I substituted ginger for galangal because it’s pretty hard to find galangal at local grocery stores.
- It is usually served with crispy sesame rice paper, but I left it out because I couldn’t find any.
- The dipping sauce is traditionally a fermented shrimp paste sauce. I don’t like that sauce, so I am recommending my Vietnamese dipping sauce instead.
- This fish is traditionally grilled and then fried. I thought that was too unhealthy for my taste, so I decided to saute the fish instead. I used Filippo Berio olive oil to saute the fish.
Ingredients, Substitutions & Adjustments
- Tilapia – I chose to use tilapia because I love the way it tastes, and it is available at almost every grocery store. Any kind of firm, white fish will work. Good substitutes are catfish or snakehead fish.
- Turmeric powder – This ingredient gives the dish its yellow color. You can also use pureed fresh turmeric for this recipe.
- Garlic – Adds more flavor to the dish.
- Ginger – This dish traditionally utilizes galangal which is a Thai ginger that is milder in flavor, but I couldn’t find any so I used ginger.
- Seasonings (salt, white pepper, and granulated sugar) – The seasonings add saltiness and sweetness to the dish. Black pepper can be substituted for white pepper. Brown sugar can be substituted for granulated sugar.
- Fish sauce – You can use any kind of fish sauce for this recipe.
- Shallot – Adds more flavor to the dish. A good substitute for shallots is sweet yellow onion.
- Dill – Adds freshness and flavor to the dish. There are no substitutes for dill.
- Green onions – Adds freshness to the dish. There are no substitutes for green onion. You can leave it out if you can’t find any.
- Toppings – I paired this dish with lettuce, vermicelli noodles, mint, fried shallots, and peanuts. You can customize the toppings however you like. I would recommend including at least lettuce and vermicelli noodles and then using whatever else you want.
- Vietnamese dipping sauce – This dish usually has a shrimp paste dipping sauce which has a strong, pungent flavor that is a hit or miss. I personally don’t like it, so I recommend using my Vietnamese dipping sauce. Find the recipe for the sauce here.
Making my Vietnamese turmeric fish
This first step is to marinate the fish. Combine all the ingredients through the fish sauce into a bowl. Mix and set aside to marinate for 15 minutes. Make sure the fish is fully coated in the marinade. While the fish is marinating, prep your other ingredients. Mince the dill and green onions. Cook the vermicelli noodles. Once the fish is done marinating, heat 2 tablespoons of oil over medium high heat. Add in the minced shallots and cook for a minute until they look shiny. Next, add in the fish and all the marinade. Cook the fish for 2 minutes on each side. Top with the minced dill and green onions and cook for 30 more seconds. Remove from the heat.
Now it’s time to assemble your vermicelli bowls. Add vermicelli noodles to a bowl. Top with lettuce, mint, fried shallots, peanuts, and the Vietnamese turmeric fish. Drizzle Vietnamese dipping sauce over the top and serve!
Tips on how to make the perfect Vietnamese turmeric fish
Use turmeric sparingly
Turmeric is a spice that people use a lot but don’t really understand. Turmeric has a strong bitter flavor, so a little really goes a long way. In this recipe, I only used a teaspoon of turmeric. I would not recommend using any more than that.
Grill and/or fry your fish for more flavor
I chose to saute my fish to make this dish healthier, but if you want to prepare the fish in the traditional way, first grill your fish and then fry it before serving. You can also choose to only fry it or only grill it. Both will yield tasty results!
Don’t overcook the tilapia
Tilapia cooks relatively quickly so 1-2 minutes each side should be enough. Overcooking the tilapia will cause it to become dry and chewy.
Did you make this dish?
If you made this dish, I would love to see!
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Vietnamese Turmeric Fish (Cha Ca La Vong)
Vietnamese Turmeric Fish
- 1 lb tilapia cut into 1 1/2 inch pieces
- 1 tsp turmeric powder
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 1 tbsp ginger minced
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp white pepper
- 1 tsp granulated sugar
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- 2 tbsp shallots minced
- 1 tbsp dill minced
- 1 stalk green onion minced
- 1 package vermicelli noodles
- 1 head lettuce
- 2 tbsp peanuts toasted and chopped
- 1/3 cup Vietnamese dipping sauce
- 2 tbsp fried shallots optional
- Add the tilapia to a bowl with all the ingredients through the fish sauce. Mix and marinate for 15 minutes. Make sure the fish is coated in the marinade.
- While the tilapia is marinating, prep your other ingredients. Mince your shallots, dill, and green onions. Cook your vermicelli noodles.
- After the tilapia is done marinating, heat 2 tablespoons of oil over medium high heat. Add in the shallots and cook for a minute until they are shiny. Add the tilapia and marinade to the pan. Cook the tilapia for 2 minutes on each side.
- Add in the dill and green onion. Cook for another 30 seconds. Remove from the heat.
- Assemble your vermicelli bowl! Add vermicelli and lettuce to a bowl. Top with tilapia, fried shallots, mint and peanuts. Drizzle Vietnamese dipping sauce over the top and serve.
- Use turmeric sparingly – Turmeric is a spice that people use a lot but don’t really understand. Turmeric has a strong bitter flavor, so a little really goes a long way. In this recipe, I only used a teaspoon of turmeric. I would not recommend using any more than that.
- Grill and/or fry your fish for more flavor – I chose to saute my fish to make this dish healthier, but if you want to prepare the fish in the traditional way, first grill your fish and then fry it before serving. You can also choose to only fry it or only grill it. Both will yield tasty results!
- Don’t overcook the tilapia – Tilapia cooks relatively quickly so 1-2 minutes each side should be enough. Overcooking the tilapia will cause it to become dry and chewy.
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