Chao Ca Vietnamese fish porridge

Ever tried cooking with a whole fish? Chao ca is a flavorful and nourishing fish stew.

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    The southern Mekong delta region of Vietnam is known for its abundance of fish and sea life and floating markets and this version of cháo cá (fish porridge).
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Following 12 days of carefree honeymooning Spain last November, where every day was an culinary adventure, the first thing we craved after a grueling trans-Atlantic and cross-country flight back to Los Angeles was something simple, homey, and soupy. We expected a warmer welcome, but we were greeted with cold, heavy rain, and even hail upon our return. So a comforting bowl of cháo (rice porridge or congee) was the first thing we made as soon as the jet lag wore off.

There are many different versions of cháo, but the most common are cháo gà (chicken), cháo lòng (pig offal/innards), and cháo cá (fish). Just as there are many varieties, there are just as many ways to make cháo. Some make a thick, bland porridge and then add different types of broth and toppings. We present a very traditional southern way of making cháo cá, made famous in the Mekong delta region, known for its abundance of fish and sea life and floating markets.

You can use any type of firm, white flesh fish, however the traditional fish used in the Mekong is cá lóc, the snakehead fish. We prefer using a whole fish (we used striped bass. Also if you have frozen shrimp shells saved, use those, too, to make stock. Fish filets are acceptable as well.  The easy way would be to cut the fish into bite size pieces and add that to the porridge to cook, however, the traditional way of making fish stock and sautéeing the flesh in garlic makes for a deeper and more soulful flavor – and totally worth the extra effort.

Chao Ca Vietnamese Fish Porridge
Serves 6

1 cup jasmine long grain rice, rinsed and drained
 1-1/2 liters or 6 cups of water
 1-1/2 lb. whole firm white fish such as snapper, stripe bass, cod, gutted and cleaned
 1-1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
 2 large knob of peeled ginger divided: 1 sliced in chunks and crushed, the remainder thinly julienned
 3 shallots (2 whole and 1 sliced thin)
 3 cloves of minced garlic
 1 medium onion peeled and quartered
 2 tablespoons olive oil
 quality fish sauce (such as Red Boat)

1/2 cup chopped green onion and cilatro
 fried shallots
 fresh cracked pepper
 bean sprouts (optional)

Wash rice, drain in strainer or small holed collander, and set aside to dry.

In stock pot, bring to boil the whole fish, crushed ginger, whole shallots, onions along with salt. Boil about 5-8 minutes, or until the flesh is cooked. Carefully remove the fish and allow to cool. Reduce heat to medium low.

Meanwhile, in nonstick pan with heat on low, heat the olive oil and thinly sliced shallots along with the rice until its color becomes opaque and just slightly browned. Add the browned rice and shallots to the broth and continue to cook under medium heat, stirring occasionally.

Peel away the flesh of the fish and return the head, bones, and tail to the stock. Break up the flesh in chunks and season with a few dashes of fish sauce and pepper. Heat up another 1 tablespoon olive oil in same nonstick pan used to brown the rice and add minced garlic. When fragrant, quickly sauté the fish chunks for a few minutes and season to taste.

By now, the rice should bloom and look like porridge. We enjoy a thick but not too thick porridge. You can add more water to thin it out if you like. Remove the remainder of the fish as well as ginger, onions, and shallots. Return the sautéed fish to the porridge and season to taste with salt or fish sauce.

Serve in soup bowls and garnish with green onions/cilantro, fried shallots, julienned ginger, and fresh cracked pepper. Top with fresh bean sprouts and enjoy!

Related post: Bon Bo Hue Recipe

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