With an abundance of seafood, southerners have created a wide variety of dishes featuring fish in various modes - stewed fish, grilled fish, fermented fish, fish vermicelli and, of course, the ubiquitous fish sauce.
Keo fish hotpot impresses diners with its delicate broth, aromatic fish meat and characteristic vegetables of the rural south. —VNS Photo Hong Nhung
The aromatic, juicy Ca keo (pseudapocryptes elongatus), one of the southerners’ favourite fish, is used for grilling and hotpot. “Keo fish hotpot originates in the south of Viet Nam and has been one of the highlights of the southern rural kitchen,” said culinary expert Le Kim Chi from the Quan An Ngon restaurants chain.
Keo fish is a type of catfish the size of about two fingers and about 15 cm long when it is mature. This fish is found mostly in Soc Trang, Bac Lieu and Ca Mau provinces.
Writer and journalist Phan Trung Nghia from Bac Lieu Province once wrote: “In the early 19th century, Bac Lieu was a characteristic province of the Mekong River Delta with scores of rivers, streams and cannals. Many rivers stemmed from the sea, therefore there was an abundance of seafood there.
“In the lead-up to the Tet (Lunar New Year) holiday, when slightly cold weather comes, keo fish season begins. In local cannals and rivers, keo fish is so abundant that the fish heads emerging from the water look like dense black spots on the surface of water.
“Keo fish grow very quickly. It is as thin as a toothpick at the beginning of the rainy season and becomes as big as a thumb at the end of the season. At that time, a day’s catch could reach 500 to 700 kilogrammes of keo fish, so much that no boat was big enough to store them,” wrote Nghia.
The fish has since become a favourite of not only people in the south but also food connoisseurs in Ha Noi, said Chi.
Chi has brought many southern dishes, including keo fish hotpot, to her Quan An Ngon restaurants in Ha Noi. “Hanoians fall for this dish very quickly,” she said.
To make authentic keo fish hotpot, Chi, like other cooks, has to import keo from the south and keep them alive until they are cooked. “The prerequisite requirement for this dish is for the fish to be fresh and live,” said Chi.
“Fish is to be eaten a few minutes after being put in the broth because this type of fish is small and long and therefore it is cooked very quickly,” said chef Nguyen Xuan Luyen from Quan An Ngon.
As keo fish do not have anterior dorsal fins, they don’t have little bones. Despite its unattractive look, the fish meat is delicious — being soft in texture and having a unique aroma of a fish living in nature, an aroma that is rarely present in frozen fish.
Normally, when cooking fish, Vietnamese people add seasonings or specific types of vegetables to reduce the fishy smell, for example pepper, rau ram (Vietnames coriander) or pineapple or dam bong (rice wine residue). “In ca keo hotpot, locals use their la giang (river-leaf creeper) and tamarind, which help to add sourness. Some replace tamarind with either lemon or vinegar, yet these two are not a good choice as lemon may cause a bit of sourness when it is added to hot water while vinegar is not as delicate as tamarind,” said Luyen.
Therefore, there is no fishy smell in the broth. Instead, the first whirl of steam from the boiling broth will make diners’ mouth water. Taking a first sip of broth is never enough, arousing curiosity and a desire for more of the slightly sour, salted, sweet and a bit garlicky meaty fish.
The ingredients and preparation of Vietnamese hotpots are simple: broth made by simmering pork bone, (different types of) meat, various kinds of vegetable and vermicelli noodles with broth at the end of the meal. While lau bap bo (beef thigh hotpot) features the tenderness of beef, the seafood hotpot indulges diners with the sweet meaty broth, lau mam (salted fermented fish hotpot) features the pleasantly pungent and characteristic aroma of salted fermented fish, keo fish hotpot impresses diners by its delicate broth, aromatic fish meat and characteristic vegetables of the rural south.
The keo fish hotpot broth is made by simmering pork bone with la giang (river-leaf creeper) which tastes sour and has a good aroma. Other vegetables served in this hotpot include rau dang (bitter vegetable), banana flower, keo neo (yellow burrhead), water lily and water spinach. Locals also cook keo fish with pepper or rau ram (Vietnamese coriander), or grill the fish with chilli and salt.
Despite its unattractive look, the fish meat is delicious — soft in texture and with a unique aroma of fish living in nature, rarely found in frozen fish.—Photo Courtesy of Quan An Ngon
Characteristic vegetables used in keo fish hotpot include rau dang (bitter vegetable), banana flower, keo neo (yellow burrhead), water lily and water spinach. —Photo Courtesy of Quan An Ngon
Lau ca keo is served at:
Quan An Ngon Restaurants
§ 18 Phan Boi Chau Street, Ha Noi. Phone: 04 3942 8162
§ 34 Phan Dinh Phung Street, Ha Noi. Phone: 04 3734 9777
§ Floor 1, 25T2 Hoang Dao Thuy Street, Ha Noi. Phone: 04 3556 0866
§ B2 Vincom Royal City, 72A Nguyen Trai Street, Ha Noi. Phone: 04 6664 0066
Phuong Nam Restaurant, Number 2, Alley 69 of Chua Lang Street, Ha Noi.
87 Ba Huyen Thanh Quan Street, District 3, HCM City.
4 Nguyen Thi Dieu Street, District 3, HCM City. Phone: (08) 3933 0696