“You have lunch today?” Luc, my guide asked.
“Of course,” I replied.
“Today is special,” Luc told me. “Elephant ear fish.”
Elephant ear? I had seen so many different things here in Vietnam, but I had yet to come across any elephant ear fish.
We’d been cycling along the mighty Mekong River for four days. I’d rented a mountain bike and hired Luc to guide me through the Mekong River Delta, expecting to explore the countryside, get some exercise, and see what life in Vietnam was like. What I hadn’t realized was that we were, above all else, embarking on a culinary adventure.
Each day, we cycled past fertile emerald green rice paddies that stretched around us as far as the eye could see. Vietnamese women dressed in the traditional long flowing white ao dai and conical hats, shielding their lily-white skin from the fierce sun, bent over the fields. We cycled past old crones standing out on the side of the road surrounded by rice drying in the sun. Around the next bend, we went by bamboo mats lying low in the sun with delicate round sheets of rice paper drying on top. We had cycled the small dirt roads to village markets where cages of turtles, mice and small puppy dogs were on display, all for that night’s dinner.
The morning we had set out for the floating market to eat elephant ear fish was an early one.
“Best time to see is between sunrise and nine.” Luc told me as we started out. “After that the boats start to go away.”
We rode for an hour before stowing our bikes on the back of the long dragon boat that would take us to the market. A thin bony man stood on the back of the boat, rowing past waterways overhung with dense vegetation. I settled in to the luxury of someone else providing the sweat for transportation. As we approached the market, I saw dozens of boats gathered together. Large barges anchored in the water, creating lanes, with smaller wooden boats rafted up to them. Villagers from up and down the river traveled through the lanes, their boats laden with branches of bananas and piles of mangoes. Sampans with overflowing baskets of coconuts and bushels of water spinach took over the view.
Each wooden boat’s bow displayed a long pole.
“That tells what is for sale.” Luc pointed to a hand of bananas flying above one boat like a flag.
I pointed to the spikes of fushcia skewered through one pole. “How about dragon fruit for breakfast?”
Luc broke into a smile and asked our boatman to stop.
Later that morning, we were taken to a floating fish farm of the Mekong. From afar, it looked like a one room cottage with a small verandah in front of a single door, the river delta its yard. Inside, a white-haired, hunched back Vietnamese man smiled a wide toothless grin of welcome as I entered the shack. He bent over a trap door in the center of the floor and lifted the hatch to reveal the water below us. His shaky hand was covered in raised veins like a chart of the delta. He reached into a plastic bucket beside the hole in the floor and produced a handful of fish pellets that resembled cat food. Scattering them across the still water, he laughed as I jumped in fright at the sound of hundredss of catfish torpedoing to the surface of the water for the feed. The catfish wrestled and wriggled over one another, creating a boiling pot effect under the house. Within seconds, the turbulent thrashing ceased and the water was calm once more.
“Large net under the house penning in the fish” Luc explained.
I was muddy, sweaty and sun burnt when we pulled into the guesthouse. I was too tired from a long day’s ride to look at the menu and was glad when Luc reminded me that he had already arranged lunch.
“Remember, elephant ear fish,” he said.
How could I forget?
We sat in the shade of the porch at a small rickety wooden table set with the ubiquitous bowls of Vietnamese cuisine: nuoc cham, wedges of lime, and chopped chilis. A porcelain doll of a woman approached with a plate of fresh fragrant herbs. Mint, cilantro and basil explosively filled the air. She smiled demurely, her almond eyes cast downward as she placed the plate on the table in front of me.
As the girl scurried back to the kitchen, Luc explained “She make you salad rolls with elephant ear fish from the pond out back. Her family grows fruit for the market in the garden and they have fish for lunch and dinner. Fish being killed now.”
The girl returned a few moments later carrying a fifteen-inch fish shaped like a bass, which was standing straight up in wooden holders. The fish had been fried and its scales were curled and flaking off, creating a 3D effect. This piece of art looked as if it were still swimming through a sea of fresh herbs and carved vegetables on the plate.
The woman delicately picked up a pair of wooden chopsticks and expertly flaked the fish’s flesh away from the bones. She made a small pile of the white flaky fish and retreated to the kitchen.
Luc scolded me when I picked up my chopsticks. “Not yet, just wait.”
I looked again to the kitchen. This time the woman appeared with the same rice papers we had seen drying on bamboo mats. They had been softened in water and lay stacked like pancakes awaiting their filling. Again the woman picked up her chopsticks and with nimble hands layered a mixture of the fresh mint, cilantro, basil and fish in the center of one of the rounds. Using only chopsticks, she tucked the filling in close and rolled the paper-thin wrapper around the contents like a cigar. She placed it on my plate and using hand signs indicated that I should dip the roll into the bowl of nuoc cham and eat.
Fresh and pungent flavors filled my mouth. The saltiness of the fish sauce, the heat of the chilies and the zing of the lime in the nuoc cham mixed perfectly with the fresh herbs and soft fish. The rice paper wrapper added a chewy texture that was so light and fresh I could not help but inhale the whole thing in seconds. “Wow!” I said.
“You like?” The woman inquired as she tucked a strand of dark shiny hair behind her ear.
“I like,” I said as she giggled and began rolling another. Another salad roll was placed on my plate seconds after I had finished the last. You could not ask for fresher than that.
I was exhausted from the ride and dirtier than I had been in years, but I was being treated like royalty, my lunch being prepared in front of my eyes. Quickly the pile of rice paper wrappers vanished, as did the fish. Soon all that remained were the bones being held aloft by the wooden stand.
The exhaustion I had felt earlier vanished. I was refreshed and ready to tackle another afternoon of riding.
“You follow me?” Luc asked in his questioning command.
“Only if you are leading me to another great meal like that,” I said.
He smiled “You like elephant ear?”
“I like elephant ear” I replied.
“Next, we try snake” he said, as I clasped my bike helmet and set off for another culinary adventure.
Vietnamese Summer Rolls
2 pounds mahi-mahi, red snapper, or tilapia (flaky white fish)–assuming Elephant Ear fish is not available from your local fish peddler
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 lime, juiced
¾ teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 package of rice vermicelli noodles (250 grams)
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 cup mint
1 cup Thai or regular basil
1 cup cilantro
16 rice paper wrappers, (have extra on hand incase you rip some)
Combine fish, olive oil, lime juice, salt and pepper. Marinate 10 minutes. Pre-heat oven to 350. Heat a frying pan (or grill pan, if you have one) over high heat and sear fish for 30 seconds on each side. Place in oven and bake for 10 minutes until cooked through. Cool and flake the fish.
In a soup pot, boil 1 liter of water with 1 tablespoon sea salt. Add rice noodles, stirring to separate. Cook for 3-5 minutes until soft. Drain. Rinse with cold water and drain again. Using scissors, cut into 5-inch lengths. Set aside.
Slice herbs into thin strips and mix together.
Place 2 rice paper sheets in the soup pot and cover with 6 inches of lukewarm water to soften for 20 seconds. When soft and pliable remove one carefully and place on a paper towel in front of you. Place 1 tablespoon of the herbs in the center of the circle 1/3 of the way from the bottom in a rectangular shape (6 inches long by 2 inches high). Place 2 tablespoons flaked fish on top and 2 tablespoons vermicelli noodles on top of that. Roll the bottom of the rice paper up and over the filling, tucking the ends in to close, like rolling a cigar. Fold both right and left flaps into the center, creating blunt ends of a roll. Be careful not to roll too tightly or the rice paper will rip (which happens often until you get the hang of it). Roll the filling gently towards the top of the circle, taking care to tuck the filling in to make a snug package.
Repeat with next sheet of rice paper and add 2 more to the soup pot to soften.
Serve with a ramekin of Nuoc Cham for dipping.
1/3 cup fresh lime juice
½ cup fish sauce
¼ cup sugar
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon sambal olek
½ cup water
Combine all ingredients together and stir. Taste and adjust flavors until you achieve a balance of sweet, tart, and salty.
Makes 1 ¼ cups