Chả mực (fried squid paste) seems to be everywhere around Ha Long Bay: seafood markets, street eateries, or luxury cruises.
It can be eaten as a snack with fish sauce or chili sauce; but it is most often served with xôi (sticky rice) or bánh cuốn (rolled rice cakes).
No matter how you dress it, handmade chả mực tastes best.
“The mechanically-ground squid paste is not as chewy and tasty as those made manually,” said Nguyen Van Thu, who has made the paste for the past 20 years.
Every day, Thu sits in front of his house in Bai Chay Ward, a popular tourist area in Ha Long Town, with a stone mortar and a wooden pestle grinding squid into paste.
Made from nghiến – a kind of rare wood (scientific name Burretiodendron hsienmu) – the pestle weighs nearly two kilograms, a heft that forces Thu to take occasional breaks.
Sometimes he also stops to add seasoning and other ingredients into the mortar: salt, honey, mono sodium glutamate, pepper, cashew oil, yolk, arrowroot, onion, garlic, fish sauce, dill, chili pepper, and finely-minced pork.
Passing tourists often stop to watch and photograph Thu at work. Few are aware that he is one of the few chả mực makers who still craft the local specialty by hand.
A dish of xôi (sticky rice) and chả mực (fried squid paste) waiting to be served to customers at a restaurant in Ha Long Town. Photo: Thuy Hang
Thu said it takes him 30-45 minutes to grind some three kilograms of squid, while a machine can churn out as many as ten kilograms “in an instant.”
Thu said he buys mực mai – a species of squid with a white, thick body – directly from fishermen in Cat Hai Town in nearby Hai Phong City. The squid is renown for its taste and nutritional value.
After the grinding process, his daughter cuts the paste into small flat cakes, and deep-fries them in high-quality vegetable oil to ensure a pleasant yellow color.
Due to the time-consuming and complex process, Thu’s chả mực costs VND400,000-450,000 (US$19-21) per kilogram, compared to the mechanically-made paste that sells for VND230,000-260,000 ($11-12) per kilogram.
Thu said he produces more than 20 kilograms of fried squid paste every day, which is sold at his seafood restaurant Yen Nhuan at Cai Dam Market and to customers in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and the south-central province of Khanh Hoa.
At eateries along Doan Thi Diem Street in Ha Long, a serving of hot chả mực and xôi or bánh cuốn costs roughly VND30,000 ($1.4).