A taste of southern cuisine: keo fish hotpot
Keo fish hotpot impresses diners with its delicate broth, aromatic fish meat and characteristic vegetables of the rural south. (Photo: VNA)
With an abundance of seafood, southerners have
created a wide variety of dishes featuring fish in various modes - stewed fish,
grilled fish, fermented fish, fish vermicelli and, of course, the ubiquitous
The aromatic, juicy Ca keo (pseudapocryptes elongatus), one of
the southerners’ favourite fish, is used for grilling and hotpot. “Keo fish hotpot
originates in the south of Vietnam and has been one of the highlights of the
southern rural kitchen,” said culinary expert Le Kim Chi from the Quan An
Ngon restaurants chain.
Keo fish is a type of catfish the size of about two fingers and
about 15 cm long when it is mature. This fish is found mostly in Soc Trang, Bac
Lieu and Ca Mau provinces.
Writer and journalist Phan Trung Nghia from Bac Lieu province once wrote: “In
the early 19th century, Bac Lieu was a characteristic province of the Mekong
River Delta with scores of rivers, streams and canals. Many rivers stemmed from
the sea, therefore there was an abundance of seafood there.
“In the lead-up to the Tet (Lunar New Year) holiday, when slightly cold weather
comes, keo fish season begins. In local canals and
rivers, keo fish is so abundant that the fish heads emerging
from the water look like dense black spots on the surface of water.
“Keo fish grow very quickly. It is as thin as a toothpick at
the beginning of the rainy season and becomes as big as a thumb at the end of
the season. At that time, a day’s catch could reach 500 to 700 kilogrammes
of keo fish, so much that no boat was big enough to store
them,” wrote Nghia.
The fish has since become a favourite of not only people in the south but also
food connoisseurs in Hanoi, said Chi.
Chi has brought many southern dishes, including keo fish
hotpot, to her Quan An Ngon restaurants in Hanoi. “Hanoians fall for this dish
very quickly,” she said.
To make authentic keo fish hotpot, Chi, like other cooks, has
to import keo from the south and keep them alive until they
are cooked. “The prerequisite requirement for this dish is for the fish to be
fresh and live,” said Chi.
“Fish is to be eaten a few minutes after being put in the broth because this
type of fish is small and long and therefore it is cooked very quickly,” said
chef Nguyen Xuan Luyen from Quan An Ngon.
As keo fish do not have anterior dorsal fins, they don’t have
little bones. Despite its unattractive look, the fish meat is delicious — being
soft in texture and having a unique aroma of a fish living in nature, an aroma
that is rarely present in frozen fish.
Normally, when cooking fish, Vietnamese people add seasonings or specific types
of vegetables to reduce the fishy smell, for example pepper, rau ram (Vietnamese
coriander) or pineapple or dam bong (rice wine residue). “In keo
fish hotpot, locals use their la giang (river-leaf creeper) and tamarind, which
help to add sourness. Some replace tamarind with either lemon or vinegar, yet
these two are not a good choice as lemon may cause a bit of sourness when it is
added to hot water while vinegar is not as delicate as tamarind,” said Luyen.
Therefore, there is no fishy smell in the broth. Instead, the first whirl of
steam from the boiling broth will make diners’ mouth water. Taking a first sip
of broth is never enough, arousing curiosity and a desire for more of the
slightly sour, salted, sweet and a bit garlicky meaty fish.
The ingredients and preparation of Vietnamese hotpots are simple: broth made by
simmering pork bone, (different types of) meat, various kinds of vegetable and
vermicelli noodles with broth at the end of the meal. While lau bap bo (beef
thigh hotpot) features the tenderness of beef, the seafood hotpot indulges
diners with the sweet meaty broth, lau mam (salted fermented
fish hotpot) features the pleasantly pungent and characteristic aroma of salted
fermented fish, keo fish hotpot impresses diners by its
delicate broth, aromatic fish meat and characteristic vegetables of the rural
The keo fish hotpot broth is made by simmering pork bone
with la giang (river-leaf creeper) which tastes sour and has a
good aroma. Other vegetables served in this hotpot include rau dang (bitter
vegetable), banana flower, keo neo (yellow burrhead), water
lily and water spinach. Locals also cook keo fish with pepper
or rau ram (Vietnamese coriander), or grill the fish with
chilli and salt.-VNA