My mother always kept store-bought Vietnamese fish paste on hand. Sold in plastic containers, fish paste freezes well and its uses are versatile: Form the paste into balls and drop into boiling soup; shape into patties and fry; slice and serve over white rice, noodles or inside a bánh mì sandwich; or eat as a snack. A less obvious way to use fish paste is to stuff it into jalapenos and then sear them golden brown.
Mom often called upon this recipe when she was too tired to cook a complicated meal. Although I’ve found few mentions of Vietnamese jalapeno fish poppers online, I do know that it’s a dish common in Vietnamese households. It is a humble dish, one quietly passed down from mother to daughter, more so as a trick to get dinner on the table quickly, rather than a recipe meant to garner any attention. It doesn’t have the pomp of Vietnamese dishes such as phở or bánh mì. Instead, it’s a recipe Vietnamese people would actually make at home on a busy weeknight.
You can make fish paste with just about any kind of light-fleshed fish. Among freshwater fish, I recommend carp, catfish, white bass, drum, bluegill and crappie. I chose the latter for this dish. Serve these stuffed peppers by themselves or with white rice. A lover of spicy food, Mom enjoyed these poppers with spicy soy sauce on the side, but I’ve found that Thai sweet chili sauce provides a better foil to the heat of the jalapenos. If you’re not a fan of peppers or don’t like spicy food in general, you can form the fish paste into patties – with slightly greased hands to prevent sticking— and shallow fry in oil as described below without the jalapeno.
Jalapeño Fish Poppers
Servings: about 20 poppers
- 1 lb. of boneless and skinless white-fleshed fish fillets
- 2 cloves of garlic, coarsely chopped
- Half a large shallot, coarsely chopped
- Freshly cracked pepper, to taste
- ½ tsp of kosher salt
- ½ tsp of sugar
- 1½ tbsp of fish sauce
- 1 tbsp of cornstarch, plus extra
- 2 heaping tsp of freshly chopped dill
- 10 medium to large jalapenos
- Oil for shallow frying
- Mae Ploy sweet chili sauce, for dipping
*Special equipment: meat grinder and food processor
- Partially thaw or partially freeze fish and cut into 1-inch cubes. With the fine die plate attached on your grinder, grind the fish with garlic and shallot twice. Then, in a food processor, blend the ground fish mixture with cracked pepper, salt, sugar, fish sauce and cornstarch until you get a smooth, fine paste. (The texture should be close to that of thick toothpaste – not the most appetizing analogy, but there you have it.)
- Transfer fish paste to a bowl and fold in the chopped dill. Cover and refrigerate for at least two hours or up to 24 hours. Paste must be cold when you cook it.
- To prepare the jalapenos, cut them in half lengthwise. Remove the seeds and ribs and lightly coat the insides with cornstarch; this helps the fish mixture stick to the jalapeno. Then, with a spoon, fill the jalapeno halves with the cold fish paste. Note: Keep or remove seeds and ribs in jalapenos to suit your taste.
- Coat the bottom of a nonstick skillet with oil and heat over medium. When the oil is hot, lay the poppers into the oil fish side down. Cook until golden brown and until the fish easily releases from the pan – do not mess with them too much while they are cooking. Then flip to brown the jalapeno side. Take off heat when fish paste has cooked through; internal temperature should read at least 145 degrees.
- Serve fish poppers with sweet chili sauce on the side for dipping.
Photos By Author