Culture Culture

07/12/2018 - 08:40

Delicious scabbard fish with green chilli

Scabbard fish are not strange to a seaman like me, but I was a bit puzzled to hear the seller request approximately VND200.000 for one kilogram at the market.

Scabbard fish with green chilli

I remember once in the past, my finger got swollen with pain when I went through the basket of fish that my father had just brought back from the sea. It was because of the teeth of a scabbard fish in the basket. It took my finger more than a week to heal.

To me, besides gray eel-catfish, the scabbard fish is the fish that we have to be cautious about. Gray eel-catfish’s spikes can make you hospitalize; scabbard fish’s teeth are that bad too. Fishermen are thus such extraordinary men. As fishermen, they must take being injured by fish spikes easy.

While surfing the net, I happened to know the scabbard fish is cooked by the Chinese into a dish with a very pompous name “Thuong Hai Bach Doi Ngu.” Actually, it was scabbard fish marinated with aromatic herbs and wine, then cooked with common spices such as garlic, chilli, pepper, etc. 

It is what the Chinese do with scabbard fish, but to a seaman like me, scabbard fish are very familiar and modest. In the old days, January was the time when a lot of scabbard fish appeared. Because scabbard fish were so abundant at the time of year, we called it the season of scabbard fish. Fishermen used a particular net for this oar-shaped fish. Also, they had to sail far from the shore to deep waters.

The scabbard fish has no belly fin, but small fin along its back. It has big eyes and a pointed mouth. Its skin is slippery and silver in color. Some are even more than one meter long. Scabbard fish are often seen in large groups. People in my village therefore use the word “season” to talk about scabbard fish, and with herrings and bummalos, too.

In the past the scabbard fish was cheap. When it was in season, few people wanted to buy small ones, about 3 fingers wide. Fishermen thus dried it for storage and it became food to be eaten with wine when they could not go fishing because of the rough sea.

Today there are fewer scabbard fish. They are rare even in areas by the sea. If any, they can be found at the harbor when merchants come to buy directly from the boats. The scabbard fish is now among the fish exported.

Many people are not familiar with dishes made from scabbard fish; some people even dislike them. But it is the main ingredient for a kind of soup in Galchi Jorim, Korea. Scabbard fish can be cooked with pepper, tomato and into soup. It can be fried or grilled, too.

Delicious dishes are impossible if the fish is not fresh. It is easy to recognize fresh scabbard fish. They have glossy and shiny skin with a layer of powder on it and big and clear eyes. We can check by pressing the finger onto the fish. Fresh fish give hard flesh. Good fish are those as big as a hand. 

Talking about scabbard fish, I recall days in January and February when I sat with Mom, selling fish at the village market. I miss my grandmother’s scabbard fish with green chili. By watching her cooking, I learnt by heart her recipe.

It is easy to prepare the fish for cooking. First of all, cut off its dangerous mouth, tear off the back fin, remove its intestines and gills, then cut into slices, about 5 centimeters thick, wash them again and rinse well. Raw scabbard fish smells rather fishy, so add much white onion and green chili, which should be torn by hand. Spices are salt, pepper, oil, monosodium glutamate and dried chili. Remember to flood the fish with water and cook on a medium fire. The dish is ready when water gets dry.

Scabbard fish give white, fatty and good-smelling flesh with few bones. My grandma’s dish looks simple and tastes a little bit salty, but to me, it is even better than Truong Hai Bach Doi Ngu or the special soup in Galchi Jorim.

Story and photo: Le Tho