In Vietnamese, the word “cá ngần” is an umbrella term for several species in the family Salangidae. The two common species are Salanx cuvieri and Salanx chinensis, whose English name is “noodlefish”. In some places in Vietnam, noodlefish is also known as “cá nến” which litterally means candle fish due to the fact the the fish is white and translucent like candles. Another less common name is “cá thủy tinh” (glass fish) which relates to the translucency of the fish.
In Vietnam, the noodlefish is known to be found in Đà River, especially in Sơn La province. The fish appears only once a year in the summer, during an extremely short time around April-May. Local Mường ethnic people consider noodlefish as a rare delicacy. Moreover, the purpose of noodle fishing is for exportation, so it is quite difficult to find noodlefish in stores.
The noodlefish is quite small, about the size of a chopstick, about 5 to 7 cm long, milky white in color. Its head is pointed, and has many teeth, and 2 prominent black eyes. Another distinguishing feature is that the bone structure of the noodlefish is undeveloped bone and is of mainly cartilage. Therefore, it becomes more and more delicious and is highly-prized by many people.
To prepare the noodlefish, people often spend a long time separate the noodlefish from many other small fish. If the fish will not to bel sold, the will get rinsed and sun-dried for many days. Dried noodlefish has a chewy texture and a sweet taste likedried squids.
The simplest is the way of cooking noodlefish is to deep-fry them and the fish is served with a dipping sauce, either chili sauce or chẳm chéo sauce, which is local condiment made of mainly chili powder and chestnuts, and other spices including anchovies, salt, garlic, michelia pepper (Michelia tonkinensis), mint basil, lemongrass and herbs.
Alternately, noodlefish can be coated with crispy flour and get crispy-fried as a snack food.
The Mường people also prepare the noodlefish into a (raw) noodlefish salad. The noodlefish is rinsed, drained, soaked in pickled bamboo shoot water for about 15 minutes, then drained. Next, they are tossed with some pickled bamboo shoots, chopped young banana buds, and seasoned with chili, garlic, mắc khén pepper (Zanthoxylum rhetsa), herbs, and sprinkled with cooked pickled bamboo shoot water. Note: fish salad in Vietnam utilizes raw fish like Peruvian ceviche.
Young (not too old) cassava leaves are used to make pickled vegetable int he region. In a pot, add pickled cassava leaves and then stir-fried with sautéed onions, garlic, ginger, chili slices. Then pour into a small bowl the pickled cassava leaf water, bring to a boil over high heat, and gently add the noodlefish. After a few minutes, the soup is done with a permeating aroma. The noodlefish are as soft as noodle, but when cooked, they are chewy, sweet, and not mushy.
Other common flavor pairing for noodlefish soup is bamboo shoots.
Noodlefish fistcake with lolot leaves
Cooking noodlefish fistcake is very simple, and not fussy. We just need to prepare some ingredients such as drained noodlefish, minced pork, chicken or duck eggs, dried shallots, dill, lolot leaves, cooking oil, soup powder, black pepper… Then in a frying pan, fry the molded fistcakes only 20 minutes, then we will have delicious fishcakes with lolot leaves for a family meal.
In this dish, noodlefish are pan-fried as usual. Then,while the fish are still hot, they are marinated with a sauce made from fish sauce, sauteed minced garlic and chili.