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04/10/2019 - 10:00

Featherback fish with sweet potato shoots

For such a sumptuous meal today, mom bought a pack of featherback fish paste to cook with sweet potato shoots. A sip of featherback fish and yam leaves soup reminds me of fond childhood memories when featherback fish was plentiful.

Fresh featherback fish and yam leaves soup

Lying between the river and the sea, my hometown would have plenty of fish, from flathead catfish, snakehead fish, to crucian carp and ong fish (Rhynchopelates oxyrhynchus) …, but the village got most bustling during the fish bailing season at ponds. At that time, every family prepared a big creel or a couple of cleverly woven bamboo fish traps hanged above the pigsty or on the rack above the cook stove.

To us the little children, these gears were indeed “treasures”! Why so? Because we looked up to our fathers, uncles, and brothers in the village so much – the most avid fishermen in our eyes…

During fish trapping season, everyone was fully prepared with creels and baskets. At three or four o'clock in the morning when the roosters hadn’t even crowed, the village was buzzing with people calling each other from this end to the other. Dangling rice wraps in areca spathe and water bottles followed our fathers, uncles, and burly villagers to trap fish in such a festive atmosphere. 

My dad took along creels and baskets just like everyone else, but unfortunately, his fishing skills weren’t so great. Yet sometimes he returned with small mercies: a creel of some featherback fishes just like his peers. Mom was over the moon. Her hungry scrawny little kids asked nothing more than a tiny portion of fish, let alone such a delicious fleshy fish breed like the featherback.

Featherback fish can be a bit difficult to eat when simmered as its body is completely flat. But the fish makes great fishcake for soups that delights every taste bud. Featherback fish goes perfectly well with bitter melon and sweet potato buds. While bitter melon is seasonal, sweet potatoes sprout green buds all year round in every garden’s corner. 

Mom makes very simple soup. As soon as the water boils, she adds the fish balls and seasons the pot with some spices. The fresh sweet potato shoots are carefully picked and added after the fish is fully cooked. She waits a little more before finishing the pot of fragrant and clear soup by adding some fermented acetes shrimp sauce, a handful of fresh chives, and a pinch of ground pepper. Mom says featherback fish soup doesn’t need elaborate preparation, because too much garlic, onion, or oil makes the dish too greasy and spoils the unique fresh taste of this wild fish type.

The crispy, chewy and savory featherback fish ball combined with cool green yam leaves makes such a soothing and flavorful soup to slurp in the early morning of a humid autumn day. 

Now, my village is no longer the same. Featherback fish is completely absent from river and ponds today. The cook stove and the kitchen corner no longer have creels and bamboo fish traps. Only lucky people can catch some grass carps or tilapias in the season. Featherback fish becomes a special cuisine only for sale in the market, readily grinded and seasoned. We no longer feel the joy of trapping some little featherbacks in the middle of the pond.

A friend of mine in the village, over forty years old, owning fancy houses and cars, never forgets to ask about the creel season of the village when he returns to the hometown and meets his relatives. Those poor old days were the best parts of his youth with the presence of a featherback fish and yam leaves soup bowl. 

Featherback fish can be bred in ponds now, but our beautiful memories when people lovingly called each other to go fish trapping still stay for long. Sometimes, after mom returns from the market, she cheerfully adds a bowl of featherback fish with sweet potato shoots in the meal as a reminder of a difficult but warm and peaceful time.

Story and photo: Mai Hue

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