Life Life

10/06/2019 - 07:59

Taste of the sea

In the early morning going to the market, I suddenly came to a halt when a basket of grilled herrings caught my eyes. The flat bamboo basket was not wide but not too narrow and held a few dozen fish. The fish were very well arranged and spread out like a sunflower.

Specialties in the sea season

Honestly, I don't really like grilled herrings because they have too many bones. But I couldn’t keep on moving and just stood looking at the basket of fish as if I were tasting them with my eyes.

Quite some time ago, a friend of mine invited me back to his coastal home to eat fish. It was March, the herring season. 

Heavy nets of fish were pulled from the sea. The fish thrashed around. The children who tried removing the fish from the net for the first time yelled out in pain as their hands got stabbed by the fish’s fins. Perhaps any experience in life must be paid with pain.

On that day, my friend treated me to a hearty fish party. The round scads were as big as my wrist, with round patterns showing on their ocean blue iridescent skin. The fish were steamed in a large pot, lined on top a rattan rack so that the water did not submerge the fish.

On high heat, the pot of fish was soon boiling, giving a tasty aroma of fish. The cooked fish curled and the skin torn, revealing the white flesh underneath.

It was one of the best meals I've ever tasted. It was steamed round scads, served with rice noodles, bean sprouts and shrimp paste. Put a little bit of rice noodles in the bowl first, then take a hot piece of freshly cooked fish, add in some bean sprouts and mix with some shrimp paste. The dish has the sweetness of the fish, the coolness of the bean sprouts, the softness of the rice noodles, the boldness of the shrimp paste (mixed with crushed garlic and green chilies) and the slight spicy taste of basil.

However, fishermen enjoy grilled herrings. After a trip out at sea, they would gather around a coal grill. Fresh blue herrings would be sizzling on hot coal. Not long after, the fish scales would turn a slightly charred golden color.

The callused hands of the fishermen would pick the hot fish from the charcoal grill. At first, they would gently remove the scales. Then, they would gently remove each bit of meat and dip into a bowl of thick chili fish sauce...

Green chili specialty of the sea region mixed with pure fish sauce is incredibly delicious. Different from their familiar rough look, the fishermen eating grilled herrings look very careful and slow as if in contemplation. 

Once, I asked a colleague of mine why fishermen enjoy the bony herrings so much. He laughed and half-jokingly answered: It’s an art of slow-food. Simply because the fish is too bony so they must eat slowly to avoid choking on bones, especially the sharp V-shaped bones that are like fish hooks in the belly of the fish. 

But perhaps, in that slowness, the fishermen had rare moments to live slowly, to reflect on the hardships and the aromas of the sea...

Story and photo: Tieu Muoi