Enjoy Sardines Fresh from the River

Ba Ra An Trach is a major dam on the Yen River outside Danang on the central coast. Situated on the border of Hoa Khuong and Hoa Tien communes, the reservoir that waters the surrounding area is a picturesque place. From the top of the dam wall, which you can walk along from the parking area, there are great views of the river upstream and downstream and the many villages through which it meanders.

Sardines on sale by the Yen River

While you’re there, be sure to climb the short staircase to the higher viewing platform from where you can see the water being released through valves at the base of the dam wall. It’s a very pleasant vantage point as a moisture-laden breeze comes down the valley most of the time. Looking downstream, you can see quiet villages along the river on both sides surrounded by so many clumps of bamboo that they seem to form unbroken walls around the settlements. Here and there, the smoke of cooking wafts up through the trees. It’s idyllic.

In the summer the area is full of sightseers and fishermen catching sardines, the region’s specialty. Starting in the spring, the fish leave the brackish water of the estuaries and swim upstream to lay their eggs, and the local people are waiting to drop their nets and catch the sardines. From a distance it looks like a painting.

The sardine season on the Yen River usually lasts until the fourth or fifth lunar month. In some years their numbers are huge. Says one riverside dweller: “Perhaps they are elated over something but the way they leap out of the water and create this silvery mass is amazing. And the smell is wonderful! It spreads so far you can sense the fish from a long way away.”

If you’re a casual visitor to the area and happen to be there when the sardines are running, you can buy some to grill then enjoy with pepper and salt mixed with lemon juice, or deep-fry them and eat with ginger-tainted fish sauce; deep-fried sardines go very well with rice and a little alcohol. And be sure to try sardine eggs, a real favorite around here. They have a delectable aroma and are hard to forget.

After they are hauled from the river, the sardines are cleaned then cut on both sides so that the cooking oil can penetrate the flesh. That’s for the deep-fried version. For fish pie, the sardines are scaled, their bones removed along with their heads and tails, and the flesh is mashed then mixed with onion, pepper and other spices.

Steamed sardines are also delicious. For this, the fish are cleaned then steamed for ten minutes before being marinated in pineapple juice. When they are ready, the sardines are served with rice cakes, assorted vegetables, and sliced tomato and cucumber. Fresh sardines can also be eaten straight, with noodles or rice porridge, mixed into salad, or even made into a delicious pie. Local fish sauce should be used to enhance the flavor.

The nearby Thu Bon River is also frequented by spawning sardines, particularly this year and particularly near the village of Thu Bon in Duy Tan Commune. The locals have caught so many in the past few months that they’ve dried and stored them in great quantity for eating out of season.

One point that should be mentioned is that, even in Vietnam, when people think of sardines they usually think of the canned variety, the sort that comes already cooked with tomato sauce and a few spices. Even the villagers along Danang’s rivers feel they should feed this image by canning sardines themselves. Trouble is, whenever they do cook sardines with a little tomato and spices, the result tastes like canned sardines and nothing like the scrumptious dishes they usually serve up. Perhaps they should leave processed food to the millions with jaded taste buds and stick with their delicious preparations.

If you like to do the cooking yourself, one of the best places in Danang to buy fresh sardines is Le Trach Market in Hoa Vang District, where a dozen cost about VND12,000 for the big ones (relatively speaking), VND10,000 for the medium sized and VND8,000 for the little fry.

Hon Viet – T.T.

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