Getting your hands on slabs of decent-quality eel is already hard enough during the ongoing social distancing mandates in various big cities in Vietnam, so if you manage to score any, do not let it go to waste.
Here are five recipes to prepare eels the way the adept cooks from Nghe An Province do it.
No matter what the dish is, the cook should always start by stripping off the slime on the eels with salt before disemboweling them and clearing out the remaining intestines under water.
Cleaned cuts of eels yielded from this process would serve as the underpinning for various Nghe An eel dishes, as popularized by the chefs from the north-central province.
Arguably the most popular eel dish from the central area, eel congee can be found in every Nghe An-themed restaurant in Vietnam. Making it at home, nevertheless, is also a viable option.
Cleaned eels, seasoned with spices to taste, need to be briefly stir-fried with steamed ‘cu nen,’ or wild onion, a characteristic ingredient in central Vietnam cuisine that is capable of clearing the fishy smell from any seafood, before chili, pepper, and turmeric powder are added to the pan.
|Eel congee prepared in Vietnam’s Nghe An Province-style. Photo: Tieu Tung / Tuoi Tre|
The presence of ‘cu nen’ will be one that makes or breaks the dish. Despite not being an easy find on the grocery shelves at the moment, the special onion can still be sourced from online food peddlers from Nghe An.
The other half of the dish -- the rice congee -- also needs quite a handful of attention to detail.
It requires top-shelf grains of rice, simmered in a pot with beef or pork stock over a span of hours.
Ultimately, the dish is served with the congee base in a bowl, topped with eel meat and the rich, golden stir-fry juice, as well as sprinkles of chopped scallion.
For the best experience, diners should mix up the bowl to introduce the congee with the stir-fry flavors, while biting sensations of spices and the supple texture of eel slices.
|Eel soup prepared in Vietnam’s Nghe An Province-style. Photo: Tieu Tung / Tuoi Tre|
Another option for eel meat is to braise it with turmeric juice, peeled green banana slices, spices to taste, and white wine to freshen the fishy smell.
When almost done, add wild betel leaves, scallion, sawtooth coriander, Vietnamese coriander, and chili to the pot, then serve it with a side of rice or rice noodle.
|Grilled eel prepared in Vietnam’s Nghe An Province-style. Photo: Tieu Tung / Tuoi Tre|
The perfect drinking snack, grilled eel can be prepared in a flash right before a drinking session with your social distancing bubble.
For this version, the eel must be filleted, then slightly tenderized and marinated with chili powder, pepper, salt, sugar, garlic, minced lemongrass, and lard in place of cooking oil -- Nghe An’s quintessential recipe to bring up the savor from the meat.
In the best-case scenario, thin slices of eel should be roasted with charcoal over an open fire. However, as the smoke detectors in apartment buildings would not tolerate such a scene, oven grilling or pan-frying can be apartment-friendly alternatives.
|Eel meatball wrapped in wild betel leaves, prepared in Vietnam’s Nghe An Province-style. Photo: Tieu Tung / Tuoi Tre|
While bigger fillets are used for grilling and congee, smaller eels out of the bunch can be turned into tender, filling meatballs.
After being cleaned, these eel cuts must be minced into paste, then mixed with chili, turmeric, scallion, garlic, lemongrass, salt, and sugar. The result should be soft enough to be rolled into small bites and wrapped into wild betel leaves, then grilled or fried.
|Stir-fried eel with chili and lemongrass, prepared in Vietnam’s Nghe An Province-style. Photo: Tieu Tung / Tuoi Tre|
Stir-fried eel with chili and lemongrass
A take on one of the prevalent stir-fry flavor profiles in Vietnam, this dish requires the eel to be steeped in fish sauce, garlic, lemongrass, chili, scallion, and pepper.
In an oil-coated pan, shallot, garlic, and lemongrass are fried to introduce the flavor base for the meat added later. In the end, rice paddy herbs or wild betel leaves can be mixed in.