With thousands of kilometers of coastline and countless rivers, streams and ponds, it’s no wonder that Vietnamese consume a lot of fish, up to 40kgs per person annually.
With so much supply, seafood products work their way onto Vietnamese tables in many forms. Today, we’re in the beach city of Phan Thiet, on Vietnam’s south-eastern coast to learn how to make Grilled Fish in Banana Leaf, a relatively simple but intensely delicious dish, making use of the abundant seafood caught fresh daily from the waters of Phan Thiet.
Our dish starts off with a visit to the new and very clean Phan Thiet Market.
There, vendors sell fresh fish from the large wholesale Fish Market just outside of town. Our guide is Chef Hoang from Victoria Phan Thiet Beach Resort & Spa who easily chats up a friendly vendor. He tells us his secret to buying the freshest of fish is to look for clear eyes, red gills and firm flesh.
The fish we’re working with today is garoupa (or grouper) and has a mild, sweet taste. Its flesh when cooked remains firm which is what we need for this dish as it will be rolled up in rice paper when done. If grouper isn’t on the menu, any type of mild fish will also work, preferably with few bones.
We start by fileting the fish, using tweezers to remove any stray bones.
The secret of this dish lies in the marinade.
Clockwise from top: shredded carrots, dill, green scallions, white onions, bird’s eye chili, ginger, garlic, lemongrass and shallots. The shallots, lemongrass, chili, ginger and garlic can be minced for the marinade to better infuse flavors. Keep some large pieces for those bursts of flavor when eating.
Our dry ingredients include (clockwise from top): fish sauce, five spice powder, salt, pepper, curry powder and sugar.
Combine all wet and dry ingredients together to form the colorful marinade.
Place the fish in the marinade for at least 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare the banana leaves by washing and drying them and laying them on a layer of aluminum foil (shiny side down). The banana leaves impart a mild, earthy flavor to the dish, but if you don’t have access to them, simply foil is all right.
Spoon out some of the marinade.
And then reconstruct the fish, adding more marinade in between the layers.
Fold the banana leaf over the fish to cover it entirely.
Finish by enveloping the fish and banana leaf in the foil tightly, making a neat package. This will also help avoid charring the fish as it’s being grilled.
The secret to infusing the flavor of the marinade to the fish is grilling it over low heat for a longer time. Chef Hoang recommends a charcoal fire for best results, but an oven at 170 degrees C for 50 minutes will also work.
Be ready for a waft of the most delicious-smelling steam as you open the banana leaf package!
This dish is best served immediately. It can be eaten simply with white rice, but the Vietnamese often have grilled fish with fresh herbs and lettuce, wrapped in rice paper and dipped in fish sauce. For that, we’ll need and plate of assorted lettuces with fresh herbs like mint, basil and coriander.
To make the dish into a meal, we’ll also add some fresh vermicelli rice noodles. These are also sold dry at your local Asian supermarket.
And of course, rice paper!
Moisten the rice paper with a bit of water to make it pliable. A good tip is dip a lettuce leaf in water and use it like a paintbrush to avoid overwetting the rice paper which quickly turns it soggy and easily ripped.
Add a few lettuce leaves, some fresh herbs and the rice noodles. Top it with some of the fish and the marinade.
Take the sides and fold them in.
Then roll tightly as you would a burrito, using your fingers to keep a consistent shape to the roll.
Enjoy with a fish sauce-based dipping sauce! (Recipe below).
Recipe and photos courtesy of the beachside L’Oceane Restaurant at Victoria Phan Thiet Beach Resort & Spa, with both indoor and outdoor seating overlooking the East Sea. The restaurant offers casual all-day dining featuring beautifully plated European and Vietnamese cuisine. Pre-order the Grilled Fish in Banana Leaf to have it piping hot from the grill or sign up for a cooking class and market tour with Chef Hoang!
Grilled Fish in Banana Leaf
200g white onion
200g green scallions
200g bird’s eye chili
200g carrots, shredded
10g curry powder
10g five spice powder
1 tablespoon fish sauce
Step 1. Prepare the wet ingredients by mincing half the white onion, green scallions, lemongrass, garlic, bird’s eye chili and shallots. Rough chop the rest.
Step 2. Combine wet and dry ingredients to make the marinade.
Step 3. Filet the fish and use tweezers to remove any bones.
Step 4. Wash and dry banana leaves. Place over aluminum foil, shiny side down.
Step 5. Spoon some of the marinade onto the banana leaf. Layer the fish filet, the body, and the second filet, adding more marinade between each layer. Roll the fish up in the banana leaf and roll the entire packet in the aluminum foil, taking care to create a strong seal.
Step 6. Grill over a charcoal fire for 45-50 minutes. Or an oven set at 170 degrees C for 50 minutes. When cooked through, remove the foil and banana leaf.
Step 7. Prepare lettuce, fresh herbs (basil, mint, coriander), vermicelli noodles and rice paper. Lightly wet the rice paper to make it pliable. Add lettuce, herbs, noodles and fish. Roll tightly and enjoy with Vietnamese nuoc cham.
Nuoc Cham (Vietnamese dipping sauce)
3 tablespoons fish sauce
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup water that’s been brought to a boil, then cooled
1 garlic clove, minced
bird’s eye chili, minced
fresh lime juice or rice vinegar
In a small bowl stir together all ingredients until sugar is dissolved.