Life Life

05/04/2019 - 09:52

Buttery and greasy grilled sardines

My friend called me from his sea village. "Here comes the sardine season! Big, big fat fish! I’m gonna send you some to try.” And I had thought he would really send only “some to try,” but in fact, to my surprise, he packed up nearly ten kilos of sardines.

Delicious crispy fried sardines

His bumper harvest of sardines granted us all a true feast! We gathered together in an “unusual” class meeting, just for a grilled sardine cookout on the mountain. Unfortunately, our sardine-sponsor couldn’t make it as the fish was in high season and he would prefer not to leave the sea.

We all intended to wait until late afternoon, in the light of the setting sun, to head out to the dam in Son Tho village, Huong Tho commune, Huong Tra town to have a grilled sardine party. It was so exciting just thinking of the scene as we enjoyed sea fish and watched the red sun sinking slow to the mountain.

Our preparation had completed before a sudden downpour. The mountain seemed ideal for camping: the green grassy field near the lake, the fresh air of the highland, the scent of the plants and soil, yet I doubted the petrichor of the rain could easily make us all sick, and we decided to stay indoors for the fish party.

But my friend was one-of-a-kind. He laughed at our bad luck, saying that because our plan excluded him, God started to cry. How nice! But we all had to admit that his sardines were incredibly fresh and shimmering! These rich, silvery sardines even had full ovaries of roe.

Sardines either grilled or deep fried can’t fail to pair with tamarind fish sauce. Grilling sardines is quite simple as you only need a hot charcoal stove. Sardines after being washed and let dry are laid out on a gridiron on hot grill to sear all the scales. When eating, just scale the fish with your fingers. The fish juicy flesh is sealed behind the scale layer, and all the rich flavor, tenderness, and sweetness are retained.

Unlike grilled sardines, deep-fried sardines must be processed in a more complicated way. Sardines must be first scaled and cleaned off their gills and guts. Use a small knife to densely score the fish on both sides from the tail up to the fish's abdomen to break the bones. This stage is important as sardines are such a bony fish, with bone lines lying densely in the body, making spines very hard to be removed.

After scoring, the fish can be deep-fried, turning crispy and chewable from flesh to bone. For better taste, salt the fish before frying. Deep frying in a pan can cook the fish evenly inside out.

Grilled or fried sardines can’t go without a bowl of sweet and sour tamarind chilly fish sauce that adds an extremely spicy flavor to the dish. Tamarind sauce is not difficult to make. Use just a moderate amount of tamarind, add a little boiling water to extract tamarind juice, then pour some delicious fish sauce and add some minced chilli. For a milder flavor of the sauce, add one or two tablespoons of sugar to make a delicious bowl of dipping sauce. It’s hard to tell whether the great flavor of the dish came from the dipping sauce or the grilled sardines, but within only an afternoon, just over ten of us finished nearly ten kilos of sardines.

The season of sardines is very short, only before or after Tet holiday, and last for a week or so. So, if you want to have a grilled sardine cookout like us, you’d better hurry up. I’m just afraid to see you wait until the next season to enjoy the sweet taste of sardine meat and its greasy, buttery eggs.

Story and photo: Ha Tuyen