Cá Kho Tộ – Claypot Catfish
I discovered claypot eel at maybe my second dinner in Vietnam and proceeded to eat it just about every day for the rest of the trip. At the time, I didn’t know much about what I was actually ordering, but I knew that each one of those little clay pots full of eel in that rich, brown sauce was as good as the last, and I couldn’t help myself.
Claypot dishes get their unique savor from the addition of an ever so slightly burned caramel sauce. The caramel is cooked until it turns the color of dark tea or red wine and then quickly cooled by plunging into a dish of water to arrest the cooking at a precise point. Just a spoonful of that bittersweet sauce adds an amazing and unique depth to this dish, or anything else you care to add it to.
I suggest using catfish for this dish, as it is the most commonly used protein, and is a bit easier to come by than eel, but shrimp, pork, or really anything you put in that pot is going to come out delicious.
To make this dish, you will need to make your own caramel sauce. Fortunately, you can make a bunch and store it in the fridge. It lasts quite a long time in there.
If you have never made caramel before, know that you need to watch it like a hawk while it is cooking. It may seem for ages like nothing is happening, but the second you take your eyes off it, it will burn. This caramel sauce is particularly fiddly, as it is perfect when it is just toeing the line of burnt. But the depth of flavor from the sweet and bitter nature of a not-quite-burned caramel is absolutely worth the effort.
Cá Kho Tộ (Claypot Catfish)
2 tbsp water
½ cup sugar
1 tsp rice vinegar
1 lb. catfish fillets
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp fish sauce
3 tbsp caramel sauce
1 tsp black pepper
1/2 yellow onion, quartered and sliced
1 bunch scallions, sliced thin
1 serrano or thai chili, sliced thin
1 tbsp fresh lime juice (~½ lime)
¼ cup water
3 scallions, green part only, sliced thin
1 lime, cut into eighths
First we will make the caramel sauce. This recipe makes enough for about two preparations of claypot catfish, but it will keep indefinitely in your fridge. Also give it a shot with other fish, chicken, or pork. It adds amazing depth to just about anything.
Begin filling a pot in the sink with cool water. Make sure that the saucepan you will be cooking the caramel sauce in fits inside the pot in the sink.
Heat the 2 tbsp water, ½ cup sugar, and 1 tsp rice vinegar over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Stir often for around 5 minutes as the color changes. When it reaches the color of light tea, reduce the heat to medium-low to slow the cooking process. When cooking caramel, things happen by the second, so don’t take your eyes off of this dish.
Continue cooking the caramel over medium-low and stirring often. It will continue to darken, and the darkening process will continue to accelerate. The color you are looking for is something between red wine and black coffee. When you hit the red wine appearance, remove the pot from heat and put the bottom into the cool water in the sink. This will immediately arrest the cooking process and stop before you burn it.
Add ¼ cup of water to the caramel and return it to the stove over medium-low heat. The sugar will seize with the addition of water, but as it warms, it will dissolve into the water and give you a nice, dark caramel sauce, thin enough to be spooned or poured.
Once it is all dissolved, pour it into a heat-safe container and store it in the fridge until needed. It should taste both sweet and bitter, a bit like good, dark molasses.
Toss the catfish, fish sauce, onions, scallions, garlic, black pepper, and caramel sauce into a large pot over medium heat. Cook covered until the catfish is cooked through, around 8 minutes. Flip the catfish once in the middle. Uncover for the last few minutes to allow the sauce to reduce and thicken.
If the sauce evaporates too quickly, add a bit more water. If it doesn’t reduce enough, cook a bit longer uncovered. The sauce should be thick enough to coat the fish and rice well.
Serve with white rice, garnished with scallions and lime wedges.