Braised one-sun dried largehead hairtail fish – excellent with rice on a rainy day. Photo: TL
In the middle of the autumn, a friend from my hometown livestreamed about a coastal fishing of fishermen in a coastal commune in the Central region. People were pulling in “dragon nets” – a sight that he thought only existed in his memory. The method of fishing of the fishermen here surprised him. He was surprised that the net caught 100kg of small silver anchovies the size of matchsticks. Strangely, fish in this area were not sold but brought back home to be carefully dried on bamboo sheets for storage.
Then, I remembered the time not only in the countryside but also in the coastal communes of Thua Thien Hue, in the late summer and the beginning of autumn, coastal netting was an adequate source of income for the villagers. Recently, about a month before the rainy season, fishermen of Quang Ngan and Quang Cong (Quang Dien) unexpectedly had a big catch of the ruốc shrimps (Acetes japonicas) by the coast. They chose the fresh, red shrimps to be dried and sold the remainder right at the beach.
Nowadays, people talk a lot about the shipbuilding industry which creates modern means of fishing. But somewhere out there, bamboo boats with dozens of horsepower still sail in the middle of the ocean. There are still people waiting until midnight to throw nets and wait for the shrimps in the quiet sea.
Then the seasons of mối fish (Saurida umeyoshii), mackerel scads, herring, Bombay duck, and largehead hairtail are spread throughout the year. In addition to bringing income for fishermen, seafood also makes their meals more flavorful.
If the people from the mountainous areas view dried meat as a special product, then for the fishermen, everything caught from the sea can be stored. In addition to the jars of fish sauce, dried fish becomes an indispensable dish during the monsoon season.
Dried fish is simple but nowadays, some types of dried fish have become local specialties. Somewhere in Quang Ninh, dried mối fish and dried anchovies have become the local key products, recognized as OCOP products. Thua Thien Hue fishermen have yet to accomplish this, but fishing ports in the monsoon season are still full of dried fish of all kinds.
To be honest, dried fish is easy to find. Just take one stroll at the market and anyone can find their favorite type. But I suppose a "genuine" fisherman will not like the things that are widely sold in the market.
Dried fish may seem simple but creating this product requires the heart of the people of the sea.
In my hometown village, fish which is chosen to be dried must be first grade and must be prepared carefully. The common procedure for most types of fish is to scrape off the scales, split the fish vertically from the back to the abdomen until there are two fillets stuck together in the middle. The intestines are then removed and the fish are washed with salt water or seawater.
Depending on the taste of each person, the fish can be boiled before drying. The water used is also seawater to retain the salty taste of the finished product. The drying stage is not too complicated but is done with care to ensure hygiene.
Depending on the type, the fish will be dried under one day’s sun or dried for a couple of days. For example, mối fish and largehead hairtail are dried once to retain flavor and texture. However, scads and goatfish if not dried properly can have a foul smell. Herrings must be boiled before drying.
In the changing seasons, dried fish can be the ingredient for many dishes that will have people asking for more servings of rice. Many dishes can be made from dried fish. Prior to cooking, the fish must be soaked in clean water to revive its original freshness.
Many people will remember the salty taste of the sea but not the fishermen. Their connection with the immense water is through their taste-buds...
It can be a hot bowl of dried herring, pineapple and tomato soup in the middle of a cold winter day; a pot of braised, caramelized largehead hairtail fish served with hot rice... Or in drizzling rain and winter winds, the fishermen gather around with some wine and mối fish grilling on the red coals.
By LE THO