My mother’s fish cake recipe is something that has made her quite popular with her friends. She has always been complimented on her fish cakes and it was a struggle to get this recipe. I had to go down the road of pointing that if anything ever happened to her, then all these fantastic recipes she has in her head will be lost forever! A little drastic, I know, but you guys don’t know my mother.
Unlike its famous counterpart tod mun pla (Thai fish cakes), the Vietnamese version is not usually eaten by itself. You will usually find it on rice, with noodles, in soups or sandwiched between two slices of bread. This is because the Vietnamese version is much milder than the Thai version, which makes it a great accompaniment to many other dishes.
A good Vietnamese fish cake should be smooth and have a springy texture to it. The traditional recipes also have a few aesthetic rules – the outside layer should be completely golden and the inside part has to be uniformly white. This means adding ingredients like white pepper instead of black, and using only the white part of the spring onions.
However, as you can see from the pictures, my recipe is all about showing off ingredients. I love seeing bits of colour throughout the cake, it keeps things interesting and it’s a visual reminder of the delicious flavour combination in each cake.
My mother and I have tried many different types of fish when testing out this recipe, but there has only been a few that have worked. My top picks are Nile Perch, Spanish Mackerel and Talapia. These fish have white firm flesh which is absolutely essential. Most other fish tend to be too flakey which gives an undesirable mash potato texture.
Of course you could always save yourself the trouble and buy packaged fish cakes from your local Asian groceries, but I promise it’s worth making it yourself. It’s really not that hard, and you’ll have peace of mind knowing what exactly has gone in it. Besides, as Mum would assure you, they are a surefire way to win friends.
Vietnamese Fish Cakes - Cha Ca Thi La
Course: Rice dish or accompaniment for soups, noodles and sandwiches
- 900 gm / 2 lb of either Nile perch or Talapia fillets (refrigerated or defrosted)
- 10 gm of dill, finely chopped
- 2 trimmed spring onions, chopped
- 3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 2 tbsp (30 ml) of fish sauce
- 1/2 cup of potato starch
- 3 tbsp / (45 ml) of canola oil
- 3 tbsp / (45 ml) of ice water
- 1/2 a tsp of baking powder
- 1 tsp of salt
- 2 tsp of sugar
- Cracked pepper
- 1 birdseye chilli, finely chopped (optional)
- Rinse the fish under cold water and remove all the bones.
- Cut the fish in cubes and combine with the potato starch in a mixing bowl.
- In a small bowl, combine the seasoning ingredients.
- Add the seasoning to the fish and mix thoroughly.
- Divide the fish cake mixture into 3 portions.
- In a food processor, blitz each portion for 20 seconds.
- Once one portion has been blitzed, add the dill, garlic and shallot to the mixture and blitz for another 10 seconds. (Note 1)
- Repeat this process for each portion until all the fish is a fine paste. (Note 2)
- Line a freezer bag with a few drops of oil and add the fish cake mixture.
- Take another freezer bag and reinforce the bag with the fish mixture.
- Knead the fish mixture 5 mins. (Note 3)
- Smash the mixture about 10 times by dropping it from a height.
- Put the fish cake mixture in the fridge for 30 mins to chill.
- With your hands, mold 5 cm length by 2 cm thick round fish patties or any shape you desire. (Note 4)
- In a pan, shallow fry each patty on low -medium for about 3-4 mins on each side or until golden. Then drain on kitchen towels or a cooling rack.
- Do not add the dill and the spring onions while initially blitzing the fish. This is because the dill and spring onion will all be minced and turn your fish cakes green.
- Keep the fish cake mixture as cold as possible. This will ensure the fish cakes develops and maintains the springy / firm texture.
- The reason for kneading the mixture is to remove large air bubbles in the fish cake mixture.
- The fish cakes will rise and gain volume while shallow frying so do not make them too thick. Any fish cake above 3 cm thickness may struggle to fully cook without burning the outer layer.