One of my mom’s favorite dishes is Vietnamese grilled fish. Typically rolled with fresh herbs, rice noodles (bún), julienned raw vegetables, rice paper (banh trang), and dipping fish sauce (nuoc mam cham), it’s a great meal to enjoy around a big table, chattering amongst friends and family in the sweltering humidity.
While there are many ways to prepare fish, her favorite is with lemongrass and fresh herbs. The lemongrass, crushed, goes into a sweet and salty marinade on the fish before it is broiled or grilled. Chopped fresh herbs (cilantro, mint, flat-leaf parsley, thai basil) garnish when the fish is done.
However, seeing as it is winter, the grill is covered, it’s a Sunday night, and there’s work to be done before dreaded Monday rolls around, it isn’t ideal to be lounging around meticulously assembling dinner. So, my mom and I have discovered a way to still enjoy all the flavors and textures of her favorite meal all in a bowl.
These “bowls” are becoming popular, too, regardless if they are traditional preparations or new spins on old recipes – bibimbap, burrito bowls, deconstructed falafel bowls, vermicelli rice bowls (bún).
So the recipe comes in two parts: the fish, the sauce. The assembly in a bowl is really up to you. Have fun with it!
Vietnamese Lemongrass Fish
- 4 Tilapia fillets (or other white fish), thawed if frozen
- 2 Tablespoons minced lemongrass
- 1 teaspoon curry powder, any mild one will do (I used trader joe’s generic)
- 1 Tablespoon fish sauce
- 2 teaspoons sugar (or agave)
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil (I used olive)
- 2 green onions, sliced
- Chopped cilantro, thai basil, mint, flat-leaf parsley, or any herbs of choice for garnish
Stir together the lemongrass, fish sauce, sugar, oil, and green onion in a small bowl.
Line a baking sheet with foil and spread with vegetable oil. Preheat the oven 450 degrees.
Lay the fillets on the tray, about an inch apart. Ladle marinade onto each fillet with a flat spoon (or alternately brush). Make sure to get both sides! Cover the fish and let sit for about 30 minutes.
After 30 minutes, turn the broiler of your oven on (or if you don’t have a broiler, leave it on the highest setting). Hopefully your oven won’t explode when you turn the broiler on because you preheated it!
Put the tray in the oven on the top rack. Check the fillets after 5 minutes – they are finished when the meat is no longer opaque and the ends become charred. Flip each fillet and repeat on the other side, just until browned.
When the fish are done, garnish with chopped herbs.
Vietnamese Dipping Fish Sauce (Nuoc Mam Cham)
This is the dipping sauce served alongside many vietnamese dishes: bún, certain types of spring rolls, etc. Basically, you stir all the ingredients together in the proportions that you like. Warning, I can never perfectly measure these ratios! Sometimes the fish sauce is too salty, other times I use vinegar instead of lemon juice… blah blah. It’s difficult to get it right, but when you find the perfect mix, it’s worth it! I’ve found the best way for me to get the perfect consistency (without heating it up to melt the sugar) is to use agave. The sweetener is fairly neutral in taste, so it doesn’t affect the nuoc mam. My mixture this time (approximately):
- 1 part agave nectar
- 1 part fish sauce
- 1/2 part white vinegar
- 2 parts water (to dilute)
Mix, taste, mix, taste. Adjust to your liking! Some people also like to add minced chili or garlic.
To assemble: In a bowl, place a base of noodles, lettuce, chopped greens, or rice. Add blanched broccoli, shredded carrots, bok choy, or another steamed vegetable. Add the fillet of fish on top, garnish with chopped herbs, crushed peanuts, fried shallots, and finally dress with about a tablespoon of nuoc mam cham. Mix to combine, and enjoy! This is a very filling lunch or dinner, great for exotic vietnamese flavors without much time! No skill required to make these into rolls, either, haha.