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.
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
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
- 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.