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Dinner From an Aquarium

February 18, 1993|LINDA BURUM

It's late afternoon at Dong Loi Seafood in Little Saigon. As Vietnamese rock music blares over the speakers, several women dressed in business suits sort through a box of lively blue crabs, trying to catch the females. "They're meatier," one of them tells me, plunking her specimen into a plastic bag.

At the other end of the huge white- and blue-tiled store, silvery fish glide around in aquarium-like tanks, captivating a small boy whose mother tries to lure him toward the check-out stands. The gurgling tanks house farm-raised baby catfish, tilapia and carp. An assortment of Maine and Pacific lobsters and Dungeness crabs inhabit several cement floor tanks. Everywhere you look you see displays of fish and exotic shellfish on ice, including lobster-sized freshwater shrimp from Thailand with bright, royal-blue legs.

This is nothing like a typical fish market in Vietnam, says Christine Hunynh, who owns Dong Loi with her husband, Larry. "The Vietnamese fish markets are like swap meets." Country people bring their catches from the rivers and deltas; fishermen bring ocean fish. They set up booths in the open market, usually supervised by the family grandmother, dressed in the customary black pajamas and a conical straw hat. People wander from booth to booth to haggle with the grandmothers for what they want.

The Hunynhs once owned a thriving business that exported some of Vietnam's fresh and saltwater bounty--the country's main protein source--to Hong Kong and Singapore. From the 1,400-mile coastline, fishermen harvest a wealth of seafood. The tributaries of Vietnam's two huge rivers, the Red in the north and the Mekong in the south, crisscross the land. These, along with hand-dug ponds and irrigation canals surrounding rice paddies in the countryside, yield freshwater specimens.

While in Vietnam, Larry developed contacts throughout Asia and a working knowledge of the international seafood market. But the family's life in Saigon came to an abrupt end one evening in 1975 with reports that the Viet Cong planned to bomb the city and "re-educate" non-Communists in camps. "We had no time to take anything," says Christine. "The streets became rivers of people rushing to the port, which was mobbed. Everyone was looking for whatever transportation out of the country they could find."

With their small son, the Hunynhs boarded a tanker where they slept sitting up during a 10-day trip to Subic Bay in the Philippines. After about two months of living in makeshift army barracks, they emigrated into the United States sponsored by Christine's sister, who lived in Maine. Larry found a job as a janitor and Christine worked in a chicken processing plant. But Maine's cold weather was a shock after the hot, humid climate of South Vietnam. "I came down with everything," Christine recalls.

Nearly two years later, the Hunynhs moved to Southern California to be with Christine's brother. They found a rapidly growing Vietnamese community in which new restaurants seemed to open constantly. At that time, few suppliers specialized in the sorts of fish preferred by the Vietnamese.

Larry persuaded his contacts in Hong Kong that he could create a good outlet for their exports. And in 1982, with the credit his contacts extended him, Larry and Christine opened a tiny shop and wholesale business on Bolsa Avenue in the center of Little Saigon. They stocked all the freshwater fish, the eels and stone crabs Vietnamese cooks love. But it was nothing like a swap meet. You had to get the frog legs from the freezer.

During the next decade, the Vietnamese community in Southern California expanded to nearly half a million people, and in 1989, the Hunynhs opened a larger Dong Loi on Brookhurst. They added extra tanks, shelves full of condiments and more freezers, which they stocked with things such as ready-to-stir-fry squid and eel completely prepared for the hot pot. The team of countermen that stands ready to dress the live fish selected from the tanks was expanded.

There's still nothing like this store in Vietnam. There are no pajamaed grandmothers, the customers would probably never think of bargaining, and the Vietnamese rock music is recorded in Orange County.

SHOPPING LIST

Any cook can take advantage of Dong Loi's excellent selection. But since the store's owners are from Vietnam, I've selected fish that Vietnamese would eat most often. Where possible, I've included the fish's Vietnamese name.

FRESHWATER FISH

Even before the Chinese brought aquaculture to Vietnam, Vietnamese fishermen were trolling their abundant rivers and lakes for freshwater species. In Southeast Asia these are as important as ocean-dwelling fish.

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