In any seafood restaurant or seafood stands in Nha Trang, the one thing they cannot miss is gỏi Cá Mai (white sardine salad). You can find many restaurants serving Cá Mai on Ngo Si Lien Street, Thap Ba or April 2nd Street.
In Nha Trang, Cá Mai is usually served when there are guesses in the house of the host. The size of the sardine is about the same size of a thumb, the body is flat, smooth skin. These white sardines are look like anchovies, yet they don’t have fins or stripes. The meat is fresher and also sweeter and it doesn’t stink like uncooked anchovies. For such taste and smell, the sardines are usually served with herbs to make salad.
It’s take time in the processing where you must clean the fish. The fishes have to be fresh; the best are those just had been caught in the early morning. The hardest part is to extract the fish bones, which can be very difficult and requires meticulousness. The fishes have to be dry, without any bit of water left to have its best quality.
(The dish has the taste of the sea. It is served in the daily meals of the fishermen across the coastline of Vietnam for a long time. Photo: Nguyen Binh)
There are many ways to prepare the dish of Ca Mai. You can use tamarind, lemon, sour star fruit or vinegar to “squeeze” the salad. The reason for this verb is because the salad’s ingredients must be mixed by hands. When the fish is being “sour squeeze” (because of the sour ingredients) the color will change from white to dim and solid gray.
When the fish is ready, it will be mixed with “thính” (a name for salt fried smashed peanuts). A few more slices of onions, minced ginger, and minced herbs like laksa leaves, basil, cilantro, shiso, lettuce, all add with some sugar and salt, and you will have 90 percent of this dish.
The important-cannot-live-without 10 percent of the salad is the dip sauce. Like any parts of Vietnam, fish sauce is so important that many dishes cannot be the same without it. The sauce is made from the bone of the fishes. The natural sweet sauce made from the fish’s bones with some lemon milk, garlic and chili will create a perfect bowl of dip sauce.
The mixture has the sour of lemon, spicy of chili, yet the natural sweet of the fish with the bold flavor of the sauce all wrap in the freshness of herbs will give you an unforgettable taste.
In Nha Trang and in any seafood stands, you can find “gỏi cá Mai.” There are so many restaurants, but none of them has the same flavors.