Culture Culture

20/07/2018 - 19:39

Dried herring soup

On the streets on a scorching day, I saw a woman with a rattan frame on her shoulder walking yelling in her Quang accent “Who wants dried herrings?” That image reminded me of the days in March or April home (lunar calendar).

Aromatic and sweet dried herring soup with pineapple

At that time of year, the sea is so blue and waving with breezes. Chong chong flowers have not been in bloom yet. It is the productive season for seamen before their boats are turned upside down for repair.

On those days, if there were a survey about what fish people remember, I am certain herrings would be mentioned first. These small herrings living in a group are a life-saver for fishermen on January days.

At this time of year, South winds appear and the herring season has been over. However the smell of dried herrings can still be felt on the streets. About ten years ago, these cheap dried herrings were often stored in the kitchen, not only as food but also for their distinctive smell when the season ended.

Normally fishermen ferment or dry fish that is abundant in the sea and so do they with herrings. I remember previously whenever Dad came ashore with hundreds of kilograms of herrings; (he went to sea from 5a.m. to 8-9 p.m.), big ones were bought on site while Mom brought small ones home, washed them well, then boiled them in a super big pot.

The next day we brothers and sisters had work to do. In the sun, we placed herrings on a large bamboo penal to dry them. Mom said “This will be food for days when the sea is rough.”

In the scorching heat, scales automatically come off, revealing the dark-colored flesh inside. When herrings are dry enough, we take off the head and the tail. With a thumb on the back and a finger on the belly, we tear the fish, removing the scales and the bones and put the fish flesh in a plastic bag for storage.

Herrings are often processed into familiar specialities such as herring salad, grilled herring, etc. Few people know dried herring can be used to make soup too. When I was a student, every time I visited home, Mom often put in my backpack some dried herrings. They were food on days when the weather was rough or when I ran out of money.

Now that life is better and food is abundant, few people make dried herrings. I have to order or ask Mom to make some for me when needed.

Dried herring can be cooked with star fruit, pineapple, fermented bamboo shoot, fermented taro leaf, etc. but best of which is with pineapple. This is not very difficult. Dried herring is soaked in water then stir-fried with some white onion to get rid of its fishy smell. After that, pour in some water and wait until the mixture gets boiled. Add spices to taste then pineapple (star fruit or fermented taro leaf). Wait until it boils again then the soup is ready. This soup can be eaten when cool, so it is suitable on summer days.

Among different soups cooked with dried herrings, I like best with pineapple. The sweet taste of pineapple and the fatty taste of herring cool diners down on hot and dry days with South winds. 

Story and photo: Quynh Vien