Cá Kho Tộ – Vietnamese Claypot Fish

 

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Bee, from Rasa Malaysia made a lovely dish recently that got me thinking about one of my favorites – Cá Kho Tộ, Vietnamese Claypot Fish. If you’ve ever been invited to dinner with a family from South Viet Nam, this is something you are likely to be served as it is utterly simple to make and you guessed it —- delicious.

My mother comes from the city of Đà Lạt, in southern Viet Nam. This is a dish that is made all over that region and it’s one that we grew up eating very often. Whenever we’d see that familiar beige pot atop our stove, we knew what was for dinner. Everyone in our home enjoys eating this dish. The tender fish is coated with an unctuous, brown caramel sauce that, combined with fish sauce, is an umami high. Holla!

It’s sometimes called Catfish Simmered in Caramel Sauce, which I feel can be misleading. It’s not like the sugary caramel you have with flan, for example. It’s used as a savory sauce that starts out with sugar that is transformed into a deep, dark, almost burnt caramel (thus, no longer sweet or cloying). Called Nước Màu in Vietnamese, it’s like our funky version of demi-glace* — in the way that it is often added to stews, braises and even stir-fries, to add color and dimension. It’s a simple and necessary item in my Vietnamese pantry.

 

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To balance the flavors in this dish, it’s served with crunchy, sweet-sour, pickled bean sprouts – Dưa Giá. Fresh, crisp cucumber slices are also nice. When you serve the fish, you can also nestle a few fresh, red-hot chilis between the fish steaks, if you’re in that sort of mood. No, a claypot is not necessary to cook the fish, but I honestly can’t imagine this dish any other way.

 *Note: classic demi-glace is a reduction of veal stock and sauce espagnole.

 

CÁ KHO TỘ

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INGREDIENTS: (4 servings, as part of a larger meal)

  • 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 small-med. shallots, thinly sliced
  • 1 lb. catfish, cut into 3/4 inch slices/steaks [with skin and bone attached] —boneless, skinless fillets will not work in this dish
  • 4 Tbl. fish sauce
  • 3 Tbl. raw sugar
  • 2 tsp. vegetable oil
  • 4 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
  • 3-4 scallions, cut into 2- inch segments [+ 1 Tbl. oil, for garnish]
  • small piece (approx. 5 oz) of pork fat (fatback), cut into thin slices or bâtons
  • 3 Tbl. Caramel Sauce (Nước Màu) – recipe below

STEPS:

  • In a bowl, gently toss the fish with black pepper, shallots, fish sauce and sugar. Allow to marinate for 15 min. – up to 30 minutes.
  • In a separate skillet set to med. heat, add the oil and cook the pork fat until it has rendered most of it’s fat.
  • Next, add the garlic and cook for about 2-3 minutes. Be sure not to brown or burn the garlic. Set aside.
  • Set your claypot on the stove and gently begin heating it on med.-low.
  • Add the pork fat, garlic and any pan drippings into the claypot.
  • Add the marinated fish. Pour and gently mix the caramel sauce with the fish. Turn the heat to medium.
  • As soon as the pot begins to bubble, turn down the heat to low, cover and gently simmer for about 30 minute. (Check the pot at the halfway point – if it looks dry, add one or two Tbl. of water and cover again).
  • At this point, the fish should be tender but still hold its shape.
  • Taste the sauce and add fish sauce or sugar, if needed.
  • Before serving, quickly sauté the scallions with oil and add them to the claypot.

 

NƯỚC MÀU – VIETNAMESE CARAMEL SAUCE

makes approx. 1 cup

If you’re familiar with making caramel sauce for flan – this will be a cinch.

In a dry saucepan set on med. high heat, add 1 cup of plain, granulated sugar and 1/2 cup + 2 Tbl. of water. As the mixture begins to turn amber, stir with a wooden spoon until it turns to a dark mahogany. At this point, remove the pan from the heat and add another 1/2 cup of water to the pan. (The caramel will seize but will eventually liquefy). Heat the pan on high and cook for about 7-10 minutes until it is thick and smooth. Carefully add a couple teaspoons of lemon or lime juice and remove from heat. Give it a good stir and transfer it to a mason jar or other glass container. The sauce will resemble dark molasses and will keep indefinitely in your cupboard.

Bon appétit!

 

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14 Responses to “Cá Kho Tộ – Vietnamese Claypot Fish”

  1. Anh Says:

    HB, this is the national dish of Vietnam, I believe. You can find it everywhere even in the corner of northern country village. The ingredients might vary from region to region, but the dish is sooo delicious no matter what.

    ANd nice to know that your mother is from Da Lat. I love Da Lat so much (especially with mimosa around!). Have been thinking to go back for a visit on my trip home….

  2. Mandy Says:

    I haven’t tasted fish cooked in claypot before. In Malaysia, it’s either claypot chicken, tofu or mushroom. This is something new to me, I am certainly going to make this once I get the chance. Thanks for the recipe.

  3. Jen Says:

    I’m nuts about claypot dishes! ANY of them! (okay, maybe not any, I am ABC afterall, so squeamish about a few ingredients). Oddly, I never grew up eating it at home (because we didn’t own a claypot), but we ordered them in restaurants all the time. Where can you pick up a claypot? Perhaps I’ll venture to the local Asian grocer. That just sounds soooo good :)

  4. Rasa Malaysia Says:

    Oooooh, claypot, and fish! I love the idea…thanks for the mention on your post. :)

    This looks absolutely delicious…and we have the same claypot it seems. ;)

  5. Kevin Says:

    That looks really good, I tried simmering kabocha in a savoury caramel sauce and it turned out well. Fish simmered in caramel sauce sounds good as well.

  6. stickyfingers Says:

    We got hooked on it in Da Lat. I now keep a bottle of the sauce in the pantry and also some times love to substitute the fish with belly pork. Your photos look so very enticing that I think I’ll make some next week as an antidote to all the western Christmasy food.

  7. zara Says:

    oooh. This my favorite dish too. When I was traveling in Vietnam I must have eaten it at least a dozen times. Yum. I might have to make this soon.

  8. holybasil Says:

    Anh-
    You’re right, fish is simmered in a claypot all over VN but my mother refers to this particular dish as “món ăn của người nam.” I also love Đà Lạt, for many reasons, but mainly because it was such a cool respite from the sweltering heat of Sài Gòn. Do you remember the night market there? So much fun!

    Mandy-
    On the flip side, I’ve never had claypot tofu…but I plan to make it soon. Perfect for the wintertime here.

    Jen-
    I do love my claypot. That and my mortar and pestle always take me back to that time when machines and metal utensils didn’t exist. Oh wait, I never lived through that time. Just another fanciful trip down nostalgia lane.

    Seriously, I found it at the asian grocery store – so cheap, like $10 or something. They have ones with or without handles and I’m partial to handles. I chose the one with a thicker base/sides — seemed sturdier.

    RM-
    Yes, it looks like we do have the same pot :)

    Kevin,
    Yes, kabocha made this way is also great. Thanks for reminding me – as I’ve got a few sitting on my countertop right now.

    Stickyfingers-
    love your name, by the way. I’m wondering if you remember what kind of pickles/veggies it was served with when you had it in Đà Lạt?

    Zara-
    I never get tired of this dish either. I even eat the sauce by itself with some rice balls. yummy stuff!

  9. mycookinghut Says:

    Looks absolutely delicious. I love fish and I am sure this makes a great dinner/lunch!!

  10. diosia Says:

    Looks very delicious. In fact, I ‘m hungry now….
    Susanna
    http://www.greencardinvesting.wordpress.com

  11. holybasil Says:

    Mycookinghut- Yes, I think this is one of my favorite dinner meals!
    Diosia- Thank you!

  12. oliver Says:

    i think your nước màu recipe meant to have the cup of sugar and only 2 tablespoons of water in the pot to begin with. at least this has been my experience making nước màu in the past.

  13. Denisha Santalucia Says:

    I’ll be sharing this info with my friends. Thanks!

  14. Mel's Goin Goin Gone Says:

    I made this tonight and it was awesome! It’s one of our favorite recipes from the Vietnamese restaurant. I don’t have a clay pot so had to use my cast iron dutch oven but that works well too.


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