Monday, December 04, 2017

Sepia Saturday #397: What's in a Name?

Sepia Saturday

What's in a Name?

I recently wrote a Sepia post about my fishing memories and find myself out of fishy material to match this week's prompt. Here's a re-post of myself at eleven years old with a string of good-looking fish.

I've had to dig deep for fish related material and decided to use a recipe. A couple of years ago, I worked on a cookbook with my Vietnamese friend, Diep. From her, I learned to make Cha Ca La Vong, a dish famous in Hanoi, her hometown. The recipe calls for a firm white fish; in the States we usually use sea bass or catfish. Even more specific, I read today that the species Hemibagrus Wyckii (the crystal-eyed catfish for those in the know) is the best fish to use.

With Diep...ready to eat!

Diep loves avocados. She enjoyed our grove—picked and ate and ate and ate.
Occasionally I find the dish on Vietnamese restaurant menus here in Southern California. It's always good no matter if there's more of this, and less of that. The ingredients are all delicious alone; together, in any proportions, they work. One thing to remember concerns the dill. You cannot use too much.

Here's a recipe for Cha Ca, not Diep's and not mine, but one I've tested and find delicious and easy to make. It's especially useful if you have an excess of dill bolting in the summer garden and you can't use it up making pickles. Pickles, you ask? Personally, I like fried fish of any kinds with vinegar or pickles—the vinegary notes enhance and balance the fatty fish.

And, on the subject of catfish, years ago (it seems every memory now is from decades ago) I worked with a consulting group for an industry association which promoted the consumption of domestic catfish. The first thing we suggested (based on consumer research) was that they change the name, following the example of many other fish varieties burdened with undesirable monikers:

Goosefish became Monkfish
Slimehead became Orange Roughy
Toothfish became Chilean Seabass
Whore's Egg became Sea Urchin
Mud Bugs became Crawfish
Hog Fish became King Mackerel
Archibald Leach became Cary Grant

"What??" the Catfish Commission (I made the name up to protect the innocent) responded. "People love catfish and they love the name." End of conversation. Why did they hire us? The customer is always right. We tore up our long lists of potential names. "Chat de Mer" was my favorite and the nom the Francophiles among us preferred. I could see the name becoming Chademer very quickly—like Chere Reine (Dear Queen) Cross in England became Charing Cross, an etymology I like. You can take your pick of alternate explanations, equally unsubstantiated. Another favorite is Purgatoire, Arizona (Purgatory in French) which became Picket Wire. Say Purgatoire fast with the French accent and you can imagine how it morphed into Picket Wire after being passed from ear to ear to ear.

With no stories and a borrowed recipe, the only original thing I can contribute this week is my drawing below of a catfish surfing on a pickle. I know it looks like a lily pad, but it's's a dill pickle. You can tell by the warts on the surface. Trust me. Why the spots are called warts on a cucumber and eyes on a potato, I don't know. The Cucumber Commission should hire a consulting group to rename the them "Lucky" something. Maybe "Lucky Dots."

All's fair in love and marketing. I acquired a Fitbit recently and learned that 10,000 steps is an ideal activity level. Googling this tidbit, I found out there is no scientific evidence to support this assertion. From the website, Live Science.

Pedometers sold in Japan in the 1960s were marketed under the name "manpo-kei," which translates to "10,000 steps meter," said Catrine Tudor-Locke, director of the Walking Behavior Laboratory at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La. The idea resonated with people, and gained popularity with Japanese walking groups, Tudor-Locke said.

My composition could be called "Chat de Mer lounging on a Pickle with Lucky Dots"

Catfish catching a ride on a dill pickle


Chả Cá Thăng Long (Vietnamese Style Fish with Turmeric & Dill)
Serves 4

For Fish:
1 Pound Firm White Fish ( I use sea bass or catfish), cut into 2-inch pieces
3 Tablespoons Vietnamese Fish Sauce or
1 1/2 Tablespoons soy sauce, 1 1/2 Tablespoons rice vinegar if you don't like fish sauce
1 Teaspoon Turmeric Powder
1 Tablespoon Fresh Garlic, finely minced
½ Tablespoon Fresh Ginger, finely grated
2 Tablespoons Shallots, finely diced
1 Tablespoon Fresh Dill Fronds, chopped (for marinade)
¼ Teaspoon Black Pepper
1 Small White Onion, sliced thinly
1 Large Bunch of Dill (there cannot be too much), sliced into two-inch pieces
6 scallions, sliced into two-inch segments
3 Tablespoons Vegetable Oil, divided
1 Cup Flour
½ Cup Peanuts, toasted and roughly chopped
Fresh Dill Fronds, chopped
Red Thai Chiles, diced, optional
Dill pickles, optional
Optional: Thai Basil, chopped
Optional: Cilantro, chopped
Nước Chấm (fish dipping sauce) or Mắm Nêm (fermented anchovy dipping sauce)
1 Package Vermicelli Noodles, boiled according to package directions
In a medium bowl, mix fish sauce, turmeric, garlic, ginger, shallots, dill fronds, and black pepper. Add fish and mix well. Cover and refrigerate for 1-2 hours.
In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of oil. Cook the white onions until lightly golden. Add half the dill and half the sliced scallions. Sauté for an additional 1-2 minutes. Plate the onions, scallions and dill on a serving platter.
Remove fish from the refrigerator and drain off the marinade. Using paper towels, pat off any excess liquid. Shake the fish in a bag with the flour or dredge it lightly on a plate. Use rice flour if you have it. Using the same skillet, heat the remaining oil to medium-high. Pan fry the fish—about 3-4 minutes on each side—until the fish is browned with a little crust. Place the fish on top of the bed of cooked onions, scallions and dill. Top with the remaining fresh dill and scallions. Sprinkle peanuts on top and serve immediately with vermicelli noodles, herbs (basil, mint) and
sauces. Offer the pickles in a side dish...not everybody likes them.

Note: In Vietnam, they pre-fry the fish. When it's presented at the table, all you do is heat it up with the dill and onions.

And here's a video showing the real restaurant experience in Hanoi. I included it so you can see the amount of dill. I'm not telling a fish really use a LOT!

Think there's something fishy about this tale? Check out Sepia Saturday for more whoppers. 


  1. Very cool take on the meme this week!

  2. Wish I had a plate of it right now.

  3. An original view of this week’s fishy theme, with tales of friendship, fine cooking and Vietnamese culture. Fascinating!

  4. You've segued smoothly through quite a few different areas here! I don't think catfish are commercially available here, unless of course they sre sold under a different name.

  5. Yet another Sepian going 'outside the box' and in a most unique and interesting way. Too bad I don't like fish - the recipe looks enticing otherwise. But it also has too many ingredients for me. I don't make anything with more than 6 or 7 ingredients. Luckily there are a lot of good things that fall into that category, but a "chef" I'm not. Oh well.

  6. Fish names are very tricky, the common names can be applied to various species. I don't think we have standardisation yet. It can be very hard when trying to adapt recipes from other countries.

  7. Very clever and the recipe sounds delicious!