Marcia Kiesel misses the crisp little fish that Madame Xuan, one of the Nha Trang home cooks, fried for her in freshly rendered pork fat. Kiesel substitutes fish fillets for the whole fish, but if you want to make this dish as the Vietnamese do, fry whole smelts or rougets.
3 medium shallots, 1 thickly sliced, 2 thinly sliced
3 tablespoons sugar
3 packed cups cilantro leaves and small sprigs
3 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons water
4 ounces fresh pork fat, cut into small dice, or 1/2 cup rendered lard
Six 6-ounce Spanish mackerel fillets with skin
Salt and freshly ground pepper
In a large mortar, pound the garlic to a paste with the chiles, thickly sliced shallot and sugar. Add the cilantro and pound to a paste. Stir in the fish sauce, lime juice and water.
In a large skillet, cook the pork fat over moderately low heat until 1/2 cup of fat has rendered, about 20 minutes. Discard any solid bits of fat. Season the mackerel with salt and pepper. Heat the fat until shimmering. Add the fish, skin side down, and cook over moderately high heat until browned and crisp, about 4 minutes. Reduce the heat to moderate, turn the fillets and cook for 2 minutes longer. Transfer to plates. Add the thinly sliced shallots to the skillet and fry, stirring, until browned and crisp. Scatter the shallots over the fish. Spoon some of the cilantro sauce alongside and pass the rest of the sauce at the table.