Noni (Morinda citrifolia, Vietnamese: nhàu) is a fruit-bearing tree in the coffee family. The tree is cultivated for some medicinal uses of its fruits. However, its leaves can also be used in cooking, especially in an eel dish called lươn um lá nhàu (braised eels with noni leaves).
Eels are highly prized in Vietnam for its nutritious meat. In Vietnam, the most common eel is the Asian swamp eel (Monopterus albus, Vietnamese: lươn). The lesser common eel is the Bengal eel (Ophisternon bengalense, Vietnamese: lịch). Both these eels are cooked with the same cooking method, while marine eels are less appetizing to the Vietnamese.
One special ingredient in this braise dish is “tương hột” paste, a kind of watery fermented bean paste made from soybean. The beans still keep their shape after being fermented, hence its name is Vietnamese. The tương hột paste is a common dipping sauce for a well-known Vietnamese spring roll (gỏi cuốn). In North Vietnam, the beans are crushed, and the paste is simply called “tương“. Vietnamese chefs often call the paste “tương hột“, so as not to be confused with other fermented soybean products. The tương hột paste is similar to the Chinese yellow soybean paste, though the latter is generally saltier and thicker in texture.
Rinse the slimy substance on eel skin by using kitchen ashes (or baking soda), lime juice, or rice-rinsing water. Remove all the organs, and rinse several times, then slice into bite-sized pieces. In a large bowl, marinate the eel meat with minced shallots, garlic, granule seasoning, msg, ground black pepper, and some ground "tương hột" paste.
Heat oil in a pan, then add chopped lemongrass, garlic, shallots, chillis to sauté. Pour the marinated eels into the pan and stir-fry. Pour coconut milk, some curry powder and bring the sauce to a boil. Reduce the heat and braise for 20 mins until the eels have become soft (on low temperature). The eels are cooked when there is a crack on the eel meat and the meat can be broken with a chopstick. Do not overcook.
Coat a clay pot with noni leaves, and pour the hot cooked eels onto the clay heat. Sprinkle with some crushed roasted peanuts. Heat the clay pot when serving.
In a saucepan, add ½ teaspoon of minced garlic, ½ teaspoon of minced lemongrass, 2 tablespoons of coconut milk and 3 tablespoons of "tương hột" paste and 1 teaspoon of sugar. Cook until the sauce thickens, then add crushed roasted peanuts and chopped chilis.
If you don't have fresh coconut meat, use commercial coconut milk instead.
Turmeric powder can be substituted for curry powder.