Thursday, May 13, 2010

Catfish Adventures

Hanoi is made up of many communities and I am lucky enough be acquainted with folks from almost every one of them. My friends Daria and Christophe work for the UN. Luke works for the US embassy and Raffa’s father is the Moroccan Ambassador. There are the folks that teach English and those that work for NGO’s who I call friends.
Then there is a group of journalists here in Hanoi that serve as correspondents for local publications as well as world re-known news agencies like the Associated Press and NPR.  Mike Ives, a good friend, is a Hanoi-based freelance reporter who contributes stories to US based newspapers. He, as far as I’m concerned, is the most well traveled of all my friends here in Hanoi.
Within the last 8 months he was in Laos for what seemed like 2 months and spent almost just as much time in China chasing stories. So, when he came up with an idea, an excuse really, to go down to the southern delta of Vietnam to research a story about the catfish industry he called me to duty.
The object of the story is to travel down there and learn about the aquaculture of this controversial fish and get an insider/local perspective.  I would play fixer, translator and photographer. We would stay in my ancestral home. And we would eat incredible food.
First stop was Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City. I met up with Mike at the heart of the city to begin our journey west on the local buses. And going local in this mode would flavor our entire journey. And as we opened a window while the bus careened down highway 1 the tropical air pelted us with oven hot dust and occasionally washed us in cool, damp breezes wafting from the ever-present swampy rice fields. Four hours later we found ourselves in my hometown, An Hũu, where we rested and prepared for dinner.

And what was on the menu you might ask? Catfish, of course! And if you thought that we’d have a crazy variety of preparations for the fish you’d be wrong, like I was wrong expecting the same.
The Catfish from this province, Tin Giang, is called “Tre” and it’s mostly farmed in small lakes. It is white skinned, tender and seemingly fragile. Think of a fatty trout and you would be getting the idea of its texture. It is too fragile to fry unless it is battered.
To cook it my relatives either make a sweet and sour soup, “canh chua”, or they stew it in a clay pot with lots of broth/juice called “cá kho t”.  The two dishes in combination is, believe me, delicious and inseparable, like a hamburger with fries or eggs with bacon. The soup is sweet from the pineapple and the fish. It is also sour from the tamarind and tomatoes. There is a little bitterness from the bean sprout ends, the okra and the taro stems. The clay pot stew brings the umami flavors from the caramelizing of sugar with fish sauce. The Vietnamese word for this strong flavor is “mặn”, which means savory. And this is the exact meaning of umami.
Here are a couple pictures of one of those meals, lunch at my relative’s land where he farms logan and rents out a small lake to a company that farms catfish. Or should I say rented.

Catfish as a commodity declined within the last couple years due to an American economic policy of domestic business protection, where at one time the US accounted for 75% of Vietnam’s catfish export market.  Apparently the low cost of Vietnamese catfish were putting the hurt on catfish farmers in the Southern US.  Now his little lake sits empty except for a few dozen fishes that the family consumes.  Normally it is filled with 175,000 “Tre”. In Tin Giang Province catfish farming has declined as much as 50%.
To get to his farm from my hometown, my second uncle picked us up in his long boat and took us thru a tranquil maze of waterways across the most easterly of the Mekong River branches. The water was cool. The air was refreshing. And the tropical sun was searing. We hid as much as we could underneath our hats from the midday sun trying to savor each shady spot provided by overgrown mango or avocado trees.  But crossing the mighty Mekong exposed us to the scorching sun, luckily the increase in boat speed helped. Near my hometown during what is called “summer” the heat can be unrelenting like it is anywhere in the world just before a downpour of thunder showers.
Further up the Mekong River and butted up to the border of Cambodia is the town of Châu Dốc in the province of An Giang, the epicenter of catfish farming in Vietnam. So prosperous was the industry at one time that the local government, with donations from the big catfish processing houses, erected this stainless steel sculpture on a park overlooking the river and its floating farms.

The catfish produced here is called Ba Sa. Unlike it’s cousin down stream, the Ba Sa cannot be farmed in non-moving waters. Instead of lakes these are contained within nets under floating houses on the river. And when the water is low a boat motor is employed to keep the river effect flowing.
Ba Sa, from what we learned, is the only fish in these parts that cannot reproduce in captivity. They are caught up stream in Cambodia and then raised contained. Then six or eight months later they go to market, which in this case means they go to the processing houses where they are filleted and their carcasses sold back to the local community under the cover of night in the wee hours of the morning. 
When asked about why catfish is so much more popular than the other fishes, the answers reverb with health benefits, taste and ease of farming. Apparently they have the good fats for reducing cholesterol. This fat also makes them tasty and tender. There are much fewer allergic reactions from eating of these catfish.  And one holding or one small lake can yield almost 300,000 fish a year at a price of 10,000 to 13,000 VND per kilo, .50 to .75 cents per kilo, amounting close to $125,000 annually.
Not bad when the overhead is something like $60 a month for labor, $800 for rental space if using someone else’s land and $15,000 to $20,000 for feed.
“An Giang is rich all thanks to the Ba Sa!” said our boat driver and one time Ba Sa house-boat worker.  He also said that we should sample the local Ba Sa specialty dish-Lu Mm Châu Đóc. This is Châu Đóc style hot pot made with the pungent soup base of salted, fermented fish….stuff, probably the fish head-spine-tail left over from the processing factories.
Here in Châu Đóc the Ba Sa is a little bit more robust than the Tre in Tin Giang. It gets fried, boiled and steamed. They make sausages out of it too. A local, friend of my cousin, who was showing us around, said that the factories innovated all these new dishes for their buyers.
And like these buyers, Mike and I sat and feasted on the Ba Sa hotpot while looking up at pictures of the many different dishes made from the fish. The hot and humid air-of the tropics and of the boiling cauldron, was tempered by the oscillating fan. Mike’s ice cold Bia Saigon and my Coke on ice also helped to softened the blow of the heat.
Our local friend mentioned that only thing missing was a special herb that is commonly dipped into the hot pot. “It helps round out the sharp savory flavors of the mm when in season.” He said.
It was no matter to me. We had traveled deep into the delta, hung out with my family and ate incredibly well, all the while learning about this region’s economy from one its most prized produce.

Catfish Adventures from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

Here are some sights and sounds of the delta.

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