To find a new snack in Hanoi, and a fried one at that, causes a degree of flurry here at stickyrice HQ. It doesn't happen often. Friends and acquaintances in Hanoi who know me and the blog tend to assume that I've eaten all there is to eat here, and thus are reluctant to give recommendations outright. This is a pity. Of course, I have ways of making people talk. Sometimes I will chance upon a snippet of conversation about a new dish or a new location for an old one. I actively eavesdrop, too. I interrupt. And I (mostly) tactfully tease the required intelligence out of them.
Or occasionally, a sheepish half-question will be proffered. "Don't you just love phở blah-blah?" or "You have tried bánh blah-blah, haven't you?" A couple of weeks ago, in similar fashion, a colleague half asked what I thought of cá cuốn thịt. To which I replied with a quickening heartbeat, "never heard of it." A not-so-subtle interrogation ensued.
Since then, I've eaten cá cuốn thịt too many times. An addiction is nigh. The literal translation of the dish's name is fish roll meat and, in some ways, while not being half as large or extravagant, is reminiscent of those 1970's specialties like the carpetbagger steak, chicken cordon bleu or chicken Kiev; lots of protein, one type enveloping the other, artery-popping richness, crisp fried exterior...let's just say they have much to recommend them.
I would classify cá cuốn thịt as spring rolls. The coating is a mixture of different grades of flour ingrained with clippings of dill, which is a natural flavour match for the next layer; large flakes of moist perch, no doubt sourced from the lakes and rivers of the north. At the centre of the roll is a mince of pork and wood ear mushroom, a common pairing found in other snacks such as bánh cuốn and bánh bao. As with all spring rolls, these ones must be wetted in dipping sauce. A house-mixed nước mắm pha can be given fruit notes with the kalamansi at table or heat with chili.
The dish has its home in perhaps the most charming nook in Hanoi's medieval Old Quarter, overhung by the tentacles of a Banyan tree and beside the narrow entrance to the lane's temple. But it isn't only home to these newly discovered rolls. Another Hanoi standard is the main fare, in fact.
A prismatic bowl of fish noodle soup (bún cá), clumped with green at its centre, competes for my attention. Thumbs of perch fillet and a dark crumbly, almost biscuit-y, fish cake lurk beneath with the noodles. The broth is webbed with dill and augmented at the last minute, in that Hanoi way, with a spoonful of MSG. I'm pretty certain it doesn't need it.
I'm also pretty certain I'll be a regular patron here. I will just have to manage another addiction.
Bún Cá Sâm Cây Si
5 Ngõ Trung Yên
Old Quarter, Hanoi
Thanks Dan for asking the question.