Life Life

28/11/2017 - 11:41

A yearning for rabbitfish

I remember that a senior who has been away from Hue for a dozen of years once urged: “Back to Tam Giang – Cau Hai to eat golden rabbitfish with me, I have already got some…”

Mouthwatering steamed rabbitfish with onions

There are two types of rabbitfish often seen in the sea of Vietnam: orange-spotted rabbitfish and striped rabbitfish. Rabbitfish is a migratory species, and the females are found spawning in brackish water while fry and fingerlings live around lagoon and estuary; fish that make it to adulthood swim to the sea and look for coral reefs and rocky shorelines of the islands to live. The main food of the rabbitfish is algae, so they are also called algae-eating fish. Unlike the other fish in their family, they are active and search for food at night, when the algae seemed to fall asleep in the water.

The main type of rabbitfish living in Tam Giang – Cau Hai lagoon is orange-spotted rabbitfish, which is a specialty for “the Elite” among various seafood dishes of Hue cuisine. Thanks to the diverse and fertile algae system there, the fish has a delicious taste. Even the adult fish are still around the lagoon instead of hurrying to the sea as if they are caught by the generous algae.

Tam Giang and Cau Hai lagoon is pretty long and flows through many villages, but in the old days only the rabbitfish in Quang Thai and An Truyen areas was offered to the King. This is because of the habitat; there are two rivers called O Lau and Niu carrying fertile alluvial soil in the northern Quang Thai. The rabbitfish found in Quang Thai is an endemic species with dark brown spotted skin, jackfruit-leaf shape and larger spots on their body. Meanwhile the rabbitfish in An Truyen is tasty because of the immense Sam swamp with lots of lush seaweed… What is more, there is another reason why rabbitfishes living in the lagoon are better-tasting than those living in the sea, probably thanks to the unique taste of seaweed which is nourished from the river alluvium from season to season.

A rabbitfish is delicious, so are its fins. Even so, to the gourmet, they are really fond of fish entrails. Back to the story of the senior inviting me to eat rabbitfish, one day his niece who is a student from other area coming to Hue for studying ignorantly started to cook rabbitfish removing the entrails. Luckily, the senior was restless and came to the kitchen when he happened to see what happened to his fish. He immediately did not let his niece cook that dish anymore and asked his wife to continue. The wife understood and said with a smile, “Last year, another niece also removed the fish entrails while cooking, when he knew this at dinner, he burst into… tears...,” remembered the lady.

Many delicious dishes could be made from rabbitfish: grilling, steaming with mushroom, onions or mussels, steaming with Chinese vermicelli, cooking with brine, cooking along with rice porridge… Nonetheless, it seems that the steamed dish could keep the sweetness of the fish, the scent of the entrails as that gourmet senior’s taste.

When preparing the rabbitfish for cooking, remember not to remove the fins to have a beautiful dish. What is more, make sure only to remove the large intestine near the fish anus, and keep the whole entrails. Make some slight cuts on the fish body with knife. Crush roasted pepper in a mortal with onions, then add some seasonings and fish sauce. Spread this mixed sauce all over  the fish and leave it for a while for marination , and then decorate it with some red chilies. Put the fish onto a large pot to steam. When fish is nearly done, add some onion leaves before continuing steaming for more minutes. Finally, when serving it,  put some corianders and slices of red chili on the dish.

It is such a mouthwatering fish dish that people should enjoy it leisurely. The sweet scent of fish, the saltiness of fish sauce and spicy flavor of chili makes the diner enamored with the dish. In the immensity of windy Tam Giang, it is strange that the scent of rabbitfish does not fly away; it is still fragrant on the plate, inside the heart, and lingering on for years.

The wife of that senior said that for many times, he returned to the lagoon to hunt for a fresh rabbitfish then steamed it in that way; then, he only ate the entrails without touching any of the fish meat. Also that afternoon, he just ate the fish entrails, sat there and talked quietly. His gentle face and white beard was seemingly carving more strange stories into the water of Tam Giang…

Story by Hạ Nguyên