Friday, 24 January 2014

Bitter gourd fish soup, and what I learnt about perfect noodle soups in Hanoi

It's going to be a thing now isn't it? Me apologising at the start of every blog post for being away for too long. (Sorry)

I've been wandering around again. Only a few days back I was shopping for fish heads and live chickens for a supperclub in Hong Kong, and a few days before that, I was avoiding motorbikes in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. I loved both cities, for very different reasons, but I'm going to write a little bit more about Hanoi (and noodle soups) today.

The day starts early in Hanoi, likely with a bowl of roadside pho – flat rice noodles and plenty of herbs in a steaming hot broth made either from boiling chicken or beef bones with spices and aromatics. I am not made for waking up early but you could (and the Vietnamese certainly did) tempt me with a good bowl of noodle soup. When I left for the airport, I had racked up a total of 7 bowls of pho. That's not including other noodley things I had – bun cha, bun ho hue, banh cuon, bun rieu, bun oc... more I cannot name because my knowledge of the local language hardly stretches beyond 'hello', 'thank you' and 'delicious'.

My favourite meal was by this petite old lady with a toothy grin and a makeshift stand that appeared as randomly as it went. The place had no sign and no tables. You grab a stool, point at the bubbling pot beside her, and get a bowl of slippery noodles in a tomato broth, with crab pate, sea snails and fried tofu puffs. Everyone helps themselves to a communal basket of Vietnamese mint, basil, and sawtooth coriander. It was amazing.

I'm now back in Singapore and surprisingly, not at all noodled out. Perhaps it's an Asian thing, but I think I could never tire of rice/ noodles/ a really good broth. I've gone on a bit about making broths before; and is sort of a cheeky hook title, because there is no one perfect way. What goes into that bowl with the broth, and even the people slurping down that broth changes how it is made. For instance, a tonkotsu ramen calls for a long hard boil to emulsify the fat and collagen from the pork bones into one rich creamy broth; while a typical Chinese chicken stock wants to be simmered for a long time, but only barely, so the soup remains light and clear while savoury.

And even then, everybody has their own preference for how intense or oily or clear or salty they want their broth to be. I believe every cook seeking for the 'perfect' ramen/pho/whatever broth is really only seeking for the flavours in that soup he had in his mother's kitchen, or the noodle stall he stumbled upon on a particularly cold and/or shitty day, or that very famous restaurant he visited in Kyoto (the last one a less romantic but probably most likely story). I loved that on every Vietnamese table, there is fish sauce, sugar, chillies, lime and herbs you can help yourself to; or in the absence of tables, there is the option of sending your bowl back for extra sugar without the cook giving you the evil eye.

Today, I have for you a recipe for fish beehoon soup. The broth for this type of clear fish soup is delicate but flavourful, and relatively quick to make. Bitter gourd/ melon is a classic accompaniment to this Teochew-style fish soup. It's "blood-cleansing and anti-cancerous and really not that bitter" (years of brainwashing by my mum). Really though, a tiny bit of salting takes away the worst of the mouth-puckering juices, leaving just enough bitterness for a bite to the dish. "Plus, did I mention it's very good for the skin?"

 for 2 
1 bittergourd (or 2 baby ones, like I used- note: more bitter)
200g very fresh white fish*
100g dried beehoon (thin rice vermicelli) 
sea salt
1/2 tsp tapioca flour/ cornstarch

for the stock
500g fish bones*
200g chicken bones, any skin removed**
1 large handful dried anchovies (ikan bilis)
1 bulb garlic, left whole
sea salt and rock sugar, to taste
big dash of white pepper

to serve
fried shallot oil
chopped coriander
chopped red chillies
good traditionally brewed soy sauce

1. Prepare stock. Parboil chicken and fish bones and discard the scummy water. This gets rid of blood and impurities which will make your stock cloudy. Bring the bones, garlic, dried anchovies, and enough water to cover to a boil, and then turn down the heat and let barely simmer for 1 hour. When ready, drain the stock through a sieve and chuck the bones and bits. Season to taste.
This could be prepped in advance; you can double the stock recipe and freeze portions. Once you have the stock, it takes 15 minutes to serve. 
2. Slice bittergourd in half, scrape out the seeds and pithy centre, then slice very thinly. Toss with a big pinch of salt and set aside.
3. Remove any skin and bones on the fish, and then slice into little 1/2 cm-thick fillets. Lightly marinate with a pinch of salt and the tapioca/corn starch.
4. Blanch rice vermicelli in boiling water till just cooked, drain and divide into bowls.
5. Squeeze the bittergourd to remove the bitter juices. Bring the stock to a simmer and add the sliced bittergourd and fish, stir through, and switch off the heat once the stock returns to a simmer. Let the fish continue cooking in the residual heat of the broth (less than a minute).
6. To serve, pour hot broth over the rice vermicelli, along with bittergourd and fish, and drizzle the fragrant fried shallot oil over. Finish with fresh chopped coriander; soy sauce-and-chilli dipping sauce on the side if you like.

* I use horse mackerel, but any firm, fine-textured white fish (bream, bass, snapper, grouper... no oily fish like salmon or British mackerel) would be delicious. As fresh as you can possibly get please, Chinese are anal about this. 
*It might seem odd to also use chicken bones for a fish soup, but it's my mum's trick to a stock that's not overly 'fishy'. Chicken stock tastes neutral enough for it not to taste 'meaty' either, and you only use a little anyway. I love chicken fat but it will work against the lightness of this broth. 

Simple, clean, and so comforting. This was my noodle soup. Add another drop or two of shallot oil, throw in more coriander, or go crazy with the chillies, if you like.


More Asian soups
The 'right' way to make stock
'Old-fire' watercress soup
Marrow goji berry stew

More noodle soup
XO fish head noodle soup
Mee hoon kueh (torn handmade noodle soup)
How to make bouncy 100%-fishballs 
How to make Asian egg (alkaline) noodles

If you want more yummy photos in between my very infrequent blog posts

My lovely friend Uyen returned to her hometown in Saigon around the same time too. A wonderful peek into the Vietnamese culture from an insider's point of view, here.