One of Vietnam’s iconic dishes, particularly in Hanoi and other northern localities, cha ca (fried fish cakes) is made from seasoned ground fish (usually catfish) that has been both charcoal grilled and fried.

Cha ca typically pairs well with bread or rice vermicelli.

Hong has made a name for herself among the local foodie community thanks to her creative blend of fine-quality fried fish cakes and array of other iconic dishes she produces.

She recently debuted a new type of banh chung (square glutinous rice cake) that uses her fried fish cake as one of its main ingredients.

The scientist-turned-entrepreneur also donated sponge cake topped with fried fish cakes to frontline healthcare workers in mid 2020, when Vietnam was fighting off its second wave of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) infections.

Upon graduating in 2011 from her master’s program in marine research in Japan, Hong decided it was time to establish her own startup in Khanh Hoa Province, south-central Vietnam.

With a passion for the food industry in her veins and research expertise under her belt, the young woman jumped headfirst into a cha ca startup.

Her company was later recognized at the Vietnam Startup Wheel 2016, a local competition for startups held by Business Startup Support Center annually, and has since received several investment offers, including an investment fund worth over US$1 million, helping her secure enough capital to perfect her products, map out a development strategy, and strengthen her human resources.

Seasoning the delicacy

After returning from Japan in 2013, Hong worked as a researcher at the Nha Trang-based Institute of Oceanography while researching and testing her unique recipes for fish cake.

She later left her job to launch Cam Ranh Food Co., Ltd. (CARAFOODS) and her brand, Hong Fish Paste.

According to Hong, each time she travelled from Vietnam to Japan for her master’s program, she brought along 30-40 kilograms of fried fish cakes, winning over the hearts and stomachs of her Vietnamese cohorts.

Selling the fish cakes not only enabled Hong to pay her tuition, but also allowed her to understand Japanese tastes.

After acquiring essential processing technology, Hong was granted a two-week internship from her professor at one of Japan’s reputed fish paste firms.

Fried fish paste with dragon fruit and other vegetables as one of the main ingredients are most sought-after products by Nguyen Thu Hong’s company. Photo: C.K. / Tuoi Tre
Fried fish paste with dragon fruit and other vegetables as one of the main ingredients are most sought-after products by Nguyen Thu Hong’s company. Photo: C.K. / Tuoi Tre

According to Hong, the CEO of the Japanese firm served as a great mentor, telling her “If you are to develop a fried fish cake business in Vietnam, you must first turn yourself into an expert in the area and invite a like-minded investor to join you. Only then can you accelerate the process.”

But it was not as easy as she hoped.

After dozens of business pitches, Hong connected with a local angel investor who was willing to accompany her to Japan to meet with her professor and the Japanese CEO for talks about partnership. 

As a researcher, Hong’s passion and academic knowledge fueled her desire to launch her own company. However, passion and knowledge alone were not enough to keep it afloat.

One of her sources of inspiration came from the dragon fruit bread, debuted by a local baker in February last year as metric tons of Vietnam’s dragon fruit are barred from being exported to China in light of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) epidemic.

The baker used the red-flesh fruit as one of its main ingredients and saw many people queue up for their new bite.

Eager to help the farmers use their surplus dragon fruit, Hong began working on ways to incorporate dragon fruit into her fried fish cakes.

An unlikely match, fish cakes and dragon fruit make a surprisingly delicious fusion, and an attractive color to the traditional delicacy.

“Many believe that dragon fruit goes well with starch, and should be prepared with bread, pizza, or vermicelli,” Hong noted. “Technically speaking, fish cakes, aren’t a likely match for the fruit.”

Hong’s success was followed by more recipes using farm produce, including fried fish cakes with pumpkin and butterfly peas. 

In addition to working hard on her receptors, Hong ensures that her products are clean, organic, and sustainable by using a Japanese food processing technology which excludes the use of Neobor – an additive often used in fish paste to provide added chewiness.

“I’m committed to turning out products that are not yet available on the market and have the potential to become national brands,” Hong shared.

“Above all, I want to give everyone access to safe, healthy food.”

Aside from her startup, Hong works with other local entrepreneurs and participates in community activities.  

In 2018, she and several partners founded Khanh Hoa Startup Club, which has organized nearly 40 free-admission events to date in order to provide aspiring youth in and outside of the province with tips on how to successfully launch a startup and expand their networks.   

The club founders are set on building a firm, supportive startup ecosystem with a message that reads ‘Being with one another for sustainable growth’ and turning its members into global citizens.

“My greatest success so far is not the launch of a firm or an investment fund of US$1 million,” she shared. “Really, my most remarkable achievement is learning how to be the one living with the present, making myself better day by day and building wealth for my family, company, and the community.”

With these principles in mind, the aspiring entrepreneur is also active in community work.

While she was studying in Japan, she and some other international students formed a group to provide cooking tutoring sessions for Japanese people to finance scholarships for needy students in Vietnam.

The program, which is still running, has helped relieve financial difficulties for many underprivileged students, allowing them to access proper educations and stable jobs.

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