Vietnamese Fish Poppers

My mother liked to keep store-bought Vietnamese fish paste on hand. Sold frozen in plastic containers, fish paste keeps well in the freezer and uses can be versatile. Sometimes she would form the paste into balls and drop them into boiling soup. Or she'd make a giant, pan-size patty and sear both sides until golden brown. When cooled and sliced, the cake could be eaten with white rice or stuffed inside bánh mì sandwiches with a dash of Maggi sauce. My brother and I liked to eat fish cake cold on its own as a snack.

Here's a less obvious way to use fish paste— fill jalapeno halves and then sear golden brown for "poppers."

Mom made these poppers when she had a long day at work and was too tired to cook a complicated meal. Although I’ve found few mentions of Vietnamese jalapeno fish poppers online, this dish does pop up frequently on the Vietnamese cooking group I belong to on Facebook.

This fish cake recipe is a humble dish, one quietly passed down from mother to daughter as a trick to get dinner on the table quickly– Vietnamese people eat more than just phở and bánh mì, you know. This is a dish we actually make at home on busy weeknights.

Of course, prepping dinner won't be so quick if you choose to make the fish paste from scratch– but that's what we're all about here at Food for Hunters. I've only tried this recipe to prepare right away. I haven't tried to make a large batch to freeze for later. It should freeze okay, but for how long, I can't say. At the store, the paste is often kept frozen in small plastic tubs.

You can make fish paste with any kind of light-fleshed fish. Among freshwater fish, I recommend carp, catfish, white bass, drum, bluegill and crappie. Actually, I recommend using this recipe for less "choice" fish. If you grind the fillets well enough, you won't have to remove all the Y-bones in fish like carp, pike or musky. Remember to remove red blood lines– no one wants to eat that.

When cooked, the texture of traditional fish cake should be smooth and springy, something similar to canned ham. This is achieved by grinding and whipping the mixture finely. It was difficult for me to duplicate the same texture as commercial fish paste– which is often full of filler ingredients and preservatives, anyway– but that's okay. Your fish cake might turn out more grainy, but it will still taste good.

Serve these stuffed peppers by themselves as an appetizer, or with white rice for a meal. 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.

Servings: about 20 poppers 
Prep Time: >3 hours
Cooking Time: 20 minutes
- 1 pound 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 teaspoon of kosher salt 
- ½ teaspoon of sugar 
- 1½ tablespoons of fish sauce 
- 1 tablespoon of cornstarch, plus extra 
- 2 heaping teaspoons 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 

1. Partially thaw or partially freeze fish, and cut into 1-inch cubes. With the fine die plate attached on your meat grinder, grind the fish with garlic and shallot twice. 

If using bony fish– remove as much bone as possible, and then grind as many times as needed to make sure Y-bones/pin bones are pulverized. 

2. Next, 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. Allow the food processor run for a few minutes. The texture should resemble that of thick toothpaste.

Transfer fish paste to a bowl and fold in the chopped dill. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to 24 hours. Paste must be cold when you cook it. 

3. Cut the jalapenos in half lengthwise. Remove the seeds and ribs and lightly coat the insides with cornstarch. With a spoon, fill the jalapeno halves with the cold fish paste. 

(Keep or remove seeds/ribs in the jalapenos to increase heat, to taste.)

4. Coat the bottom of a nonstick skillet with oil and heat over medium. When the oil begins to smoke, lay the poppers into the oil fish side down. Cook until golden brown and when the fish easily releases from the pan—do not fiddle with them too much while they are cooking. 

Flip the poppers to brown the jalapeno side. Take off heat when fish paste has cooked through; internal temperature should read at least 145 degrees. 

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. 

5. Serve fish poppers with sweet chili sauce on the side for dipping.