My all time favorite meal in the countryside of Vietnam, especially around the Mekong Delta, is the braised catfish in a sweet, salty and slightly sticky sauce cooked in a clay pot. Whenever I think of my favorite home cooking in Vietnam, I dream of ca kho to (catfish braised in a clay pot) and canh chua (sweet and sour soup). They are traditionally paired together as most family would buy one fish for dinner. They would use the filets for the ca kho to and the head and tail parts for the canh chua. The sweet and sour soup complement the salty and sweet catfish nicely.
In this recipe, we will make the traditional ca kho to in a clay pot with cat fish. If you don’t have a claypot, any heavy pot will work fine. You can also use any fresh water fish instead of catfish and many restaurants also use salmon filet. If your local grocery store does not have catfish, you can substitute with catfish nuggets. For me, nothing beats the original catfish for this dish.
This recipe serves four people and it has a medium rating for difficulty if you make the caramel yourself. This is not hard but it does take practice.
2-3 lb of catfish (1 inch filet). Roughly 3-4 large filet. You can also use any fresh water fish.
¼ cup fish sauce
3 tablespoon of sugar
2 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon of freshly cracked black pepper and an extra pinch to taste
1 ¼ teaspoon of sea salt
1 teaspoon of olive oil
1 green pepper
2 red thai chili for flavor (optional)
1 green onion
½ cup of water
Part 1: Clean
In a large bowl, add 1 teaspoon of salt to the fish filets. Mix and rub the salt with the filets. This will get rid of any fishy smell.
Rinse with cold water thoroughly
Part 2: Marinate
In a large bowl, add the washed fish fillets, 1 teaspoon of fresh cracked pepper, ¼ teaspoon of sea salt, ¼ cup of fish sauce, 1 sliced green chili and 2 red thai chili (whole). The chili are optional but they add a lot of flavor without the heat if left whole.
Mix well and let it marinate for at least 15 minutes. If you don’t have time, marinate for at least 5 minutes for the marinade to sink in. The longer the fish marinate before the cooking process, the more flavorful the finished dish will be.
Part 3: Cook
Mince 2 cloves of garlic and set aside.
In a medium sized pot with a heavy bottom (clay pot or a cast iron pot if possible), add 2 tablespoons of sugar over medium heat. Spread the sugar evenly out in the pot. Add 1 teaspoon of olive oil.
Turn the heat to medium high and watch the pot carefully as this caramel process is quick. It is very easy to mess up the timing.
Have ½ cup of water on standby next to the pot.
Once the sugar starts to liquefy, gently stir and watch for the color change. Turn the heat to low.
Add the minced garlic
Watch carefully as the sugar mixture turns to a coffee color and starts foaming. Within a few seconds, it should continue to foam, reaching a dark coffee color.
Slowly add the water so it will stop the caramelizing process. The sauce may splatter if you add the water too quickly. If you do not stop the caramel process right after the sugar reaches a dark coffee color, the syrup will burn.
Continue to stir.
Add the fish fillets and marinade to the pot.
Turn the heat up to medium- high and keep it on a constant low boil to continue the caramelization and braising process.
After a few minutes (approximately 5 minutes after putting the fish into the pot), add 1 tablespoon of sugar. Use a spoon to carefully incorporate the sugar into the mixture. Let the pot continue to boil.
Once in a while, shake the pot so the fish does not stick to the bottom of the pot and break apart.
The braising process should take about 20 minutes from the time the fish goes into the pot. You can see the changes in the color and liquid consistency in the following pictures.
Turn off the heat and add a few pinches of freshly cracked pepper to the pot and julienne green onions for garnish.
Alternative to making caramel:
An alternative for making caramel at the beginning of the recipe is to use the pre-made caramel sauce. See last week’s recipe.
Add 1 teaspoon of olive oil to the pot and add the garlic on medium heat.
Lightly brown the garlic and add 1-2 tablespoon of caramel to the mixture to your taste.
Add the fish and the sauce.
Follow steps 14-18 from above to finish the cooking process.
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