Pass the parcel to win the juiciest trout

One of the first times I saw something cooked in a bag was in Hong Kong. It was chicken, cooked in brown paper, and then piled in salt. 

The basic reason for cooking something this way is to steam it gently and to concentrate the flavour as it simmers in its own juices. Wine or stock can be added to the bag, but most proteins produce a fair amount of juice while they cook.

The French call it en papillote, which literally means “in paper”. In Italian it is al cartoccio. Aluminium foil is often used, but I prefer paper. I could say that this imparts a more gentle flavour or allows the natural flavours more space. But the truth is, it looks better. I find it a bit more ceremonial to unwrap a parcel tied with string than a bit of foil that’s been scrunched around a fish.

In Asia, there is more variation in wrapping of food before cooking. Lotus leaf is used in China, especially around sticky rice. Banana leaves are used in Indonesia for either steaming or grilling protein. In Japan and elsewhere, bamboo leaves are used.

The flavour combination in this recipe comes from Hanoi. There is a restaurant named Cha Ca La Vong, which has been there for more than 100 years and is known for a dish of the same name. You climb steep stairs to get into the restaurant and a plate of hot oil is set in front of you. Into the oil you put fish marinated in turmeric, which is then served with lots of fresh dill and vermicelli noodles. The most arresting thing is the heavy use of dill – which I had only associated with Scandinavian cooking – in the middle of Vietnam.

A lot of people use turmeric like saffron, as a colouring agent. But in this case it is the principle flavour and it has a lovely aromatic sweetness. Note: powdered turmeric cannot be used; it is stale, often awful stuff.

The recipe can be changed to use white fish fillet. Instead of the turmeric and dill, pound an inch of ginger and a clove of garlic and some white pepper together to use as a paste.

I would serve this with rice or cooked vermicelli noodles. You could serve some sautéed asparagus. I always like to have something sautéed against something steamed – but it isn’t necessary.

Brook trout in paper

Serves 4

– 4 whole brook trout (or rainbow trout), cleaned and scaled

– 50g fresh turmeric, peeled

– ½ tsp white pepper

– 1 tsp salt

– juice, ½ lemon

– ½ bunch dill

– 1 lemon, cut into quarters

– baking paper

– butcher’s twine 

Use a mortar and pestle to pound the turmeric, pepper and salt to a paste. Stir in the lemon juice.

Preheat your oven to 180ºC.

Trim the fins off the fish and cut four diagonal slashes down each side. Rub the paste into the fish, inside and out. Put a small handful of dill and a wedge of lemon into the cavity of each fish.

Take a piece of baking paper large enough to generously wrap the fish. Brush the paper with a little oil before placing the fish near the end of the paper closest to you. Fold in the edges of the paper as you gently roll up the fish. Secure the parcel with twine.

Bake on a tray in the oven for 15 minutes. Serve immediately.

Wine pairing:

2012 A. Christmann riesling, Pfalz, Germany ($35) – Liam O’Brien, sommelier, Cutler & Co

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 14, 2015 as "Pass the parcel". Subscribe here.

Andrew McConnell
is the executive chef and co-owner of Cutler & Co and Cumulus Inc.