Life Life

09/12/2018 - 10:21

Halfbeak soup with sour star-fruit

I am not sure if Mom had any bite, since every time we enjoyed this dish, all my eyes, hands and mouth were competing with my younger brother’s.

Raised halfbeaks are just as big as two thumbs. They have light-colored skin and give better and harder flesh than those in the sea.

It was the first time that I had seen halfbeaks again after more than 20 years. It was when I joined fishermen in Hai Duong (Huong Tra Town) last September to catch cuttlefish. At that time, though schools of halfbeaks, attracted by the light, gathered near the boat, the elderly fisherman shook his head saying, in reply to my inquiry, that those fish were very cheap and not many people wanted them. 

The second time was recently when I hurried to Dong Ba Market, I happened to see some halfbeaks from Tam Giang, silver in color, nestling beside many other fishes.

I was surprised because I had not seen this kind of fish at the market for more than 20 years. It was familiar because in my memory, halfbeak often appeared in our meals about 10 days before the end of month. But it does not mean the fish is not good; actually, it is very delicious.

At that time, we categorized halfbeaks into two groups. Sea halfbeaks were big with light blue skin; raised halfbeaks were smaller, as big as a thumb with lighter skin and gave good and harder flesh. Whether natural or raised, a skillful cook can make two different dishes with halfbeaks and both are so good that even when you are full, you still feel wanting more.

To prepare halfbeaks for cooking, just remove their tails and beaks, take off their scales with a scissor blade. Wash them in brine to get rid of the fishy smell. Halfbeaks have few scales and they are easy to remove. This step is therefore not time-consuming. 

It is simple to marinade the fish with pepper, chilli, shallot, sugar, fish sauce, etc.  Let it rest for about 30 minutes. Fry shallot, then add in the marinaded fish and wait until it boils then turn down the fire. When the fluid begins to dry up and the fish looks hard, we know it is ready.

It is stewed halfbeak which tastes fatty and a bit bitter. This dish is suitable for kids in poor families on rainy and windy winter days because halfbeaks have few bones.

Halfbeaks can also be cooked by Mom into soup with star fruit. While waiting for the fish to absorb such spices as pepper, shallot and fish sauce, Mom runs to the garden and picks some star fruits, cherry tomatoes, some coriander which Dad grows besides the gourd plant. Slice star fruit vertically into thin slices, press them to separate the juice and set them aside. Coriander is washed and cut into short pieces. Cherry tomatoes are half cut with a knife.

When water gets boiled, Mom drops in the fish, then star fruit, cherry tomatoes as big as a thumb and spices to taste. Remember to slightly squeeze the tomatoes before adding them in. If it is not sour enough, pour in some star fruit juice. Coriander and hot and aromatic pepper are sprinkled to finish.

Beside the bowl of hot soup full of colors and flavors is a small bowl of fish sauce from Thuan An with hot chilli. Soon the soup and the rice disappear from the table without knowing.

I am not sure if Mom had any bite, since every time we enjoyed this dish, all my eyes, hands and mouth were competing with my younger brother’s. 

Story and photo: LE TRANG