The fish is twice cooked. First, it is deep fried to give it texture. Next, it is braised in the spice sauce just long enough to allow the fish flesh to soak up the flavors.
The result is both comfortably homey and mysteriously exotic. The appearance is similar to many humble fish dishes that can be prepared in a short time with very inexpensive ingredients. Deceptively simple in looks, yes, but the total experience is anything but simple. The first wave of delight is the wonderful deep fried texture that immediately hits the tongue and palate. The second wave which playfully overlaps with the first is the burst of citrusy, spicy, earthy and salty flavors tinged with oh, so subtle sweetness. I can write an ode each time I cook this Vietnamese delight and each will probably be more passionate than the last.
- 1 whole fish about 400 grams, scaled and gutted
- salt and pepper
- 2 stalks lemongrass
- 1-inch knob ginger peeled
- 2 cloves garlic peeled
- 2 bird's eye chilis
- enough cooking oil to deep fry the fish in (the amount really depends on the size and shape of your frying pan)
- patis (fish sauce) to taste
- sugar to taste
- fresh mint leaves to garnish
Score the fish and rub lightly with salt and pepper.
Grind the lemongrass, ginger, garlic and chilis.
Heat the cooking oil and deep fry the fish, turning if not completely submerged in oil, about four minutes per side or until deep golden and crisp on the outside. Drain the fish and keep warm.
Pour off the oil from the pan leaving only about two tablespoonfuls.
Over medium heat, sauté the ground spices until fragrant, about a minute.
Pour in about two tablespoonfuls of fish sauce and two tablespoonfuls of water. Add a generous pinch of sugar. Stir. Taste and adjust the seasonings until you're happy with the balance.
Return the fish to the pan. Lower the heat, cover and cook for one minute per side.
Scoop out the fish and move to a serving plate. Pour the ground spices and any remaining liquid over the fish.
Thinly slice the mint leaves and sprinkle over the fish.
Serve hot with rice.