Life Life

20/12/2018 - 12:35

Mai fish stewed with turmeric - a rustic but delicious dish

Just after a day of heavy rain, the field and the river in front of the village were flooded. This was also the time when schools of mại fish move with the water current into drainage channels, and then overflow into the fields.

I also set aside some time to help my father mend the tattered washed out net that had been used for many flood seasons. Then I made some traps from old mesh fabric and hand nets to go catching fish in the field.

Mother’s turmeric stewed mai fish with rice is perfect for a stormy day

After more than half a day throwing nets and setting traps, my father brought home a whole basket full of fat and glittering mại fish, still alive and thrashing. Mixed in the fish are some small shrimps and Crucian carps jumping about.

My mother took a plastic bowl and scooped the fish onto banana leaves to divide into different portions. Then, she carefully placed the bundles in plastic bags and told my youngest brother to ride to our relatives’ living in the next village to give them the fish. The remaining part, mother asked my siblings and I to prepare by cutting the head, squeezing out the intestines, and then washing and draining for cooking.

Though small, the mại fish has quite a lot of meat. The taste of the fish is sweet and fragrant, so it is easy to prepare. Just counting off the top of my head, there are nearly a dozen delicious dishes that can be made with this fish, such as sauté with salt and chili, fried, stewed with pepper, stewed with turmeric, stewed with bamboo shoots, stewed with young ginger leaves, stewed with ngò om (rice paddy herb) ... or minced with pork belly to make into fish balls.

Of the above-mentioned dishes, my favorite is mại fish stewed with turmeric.  Perhaps when combined with this medicinal ingredient, the fish not only keep the delicious flavor but the unpleasant smell is also eliminated. Especially, the golden color helps to make the dish even more appetizing. The dish is a harmony between the different tastes and is also a nutritious dose of medicine.

According to my mother’s cooking experience, the secret to making a delicious pot of stewed fish with turmeric, after cleaning and marinating with salt, sugar, flavoring, fish sauce, pepper, chili, shallots, and freshly bashed turmeric... is to leave them in the pot for half an hour for the fish to harden. In order for the fish to not dry out and also to intensify the fatty, savory taste, it is necessary to stir-fry some sliced pork belly and pour all the contents into the marinating fish. The fat rendered from the pork belly replaces cooking oil.

After marinating, the pot of fish is put on the stove with minimum heat. Stew the fish until dried, and then add water to submerge the fish and continue to stew. The fish will even be tastier if water is replaced by green tea. Turn off the stove when the water have dried up and turned into a paste-like consistency. The fish will have curled and have a bright golden color.

On rainy or stormy days, mại fish stewed with turmeric is always present in our family dinner. The fish is eaten with hot rice, served with a dish of boiled water spinach and the sweet and sour soup from the boiled water spinach. The humble, but mouth-watering dinner, with fresh green vegetables, along with the eye-catching pot of fish is hard for anyone to resist.

This afternoon, sudden heavy rain poured. The harvested fields once again flooded in front of our door. In the cold air, through the rain, I could smell the floating fragrant scent of mai fish stewed with turmeric.

Story and photos: Thao Yen Van