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A Pot of Fish

May 14, 2010

I have goofed on this dish many times. And yes, I have been discouraged several times. The only reason I was determined to make this is because, to a Vietnamese, this is one of 3 dishes you must know how to make (the other two would include pho and canh chua). Ca kho to is an unofficial national dish, and if you grow up Vietnamese, it’s something that appears on the dinner table frequently. And often times, when you go to a restaurant and order it off the menu, it doesn’t taste the way you want it to.

So eventually, you have to learn how to make this since you know what you like. And you start with the person who used to make this for you – I went to my dad.

“You need nuoc mau [a caramel sauce]. You can buy it. Or ask your mom to make.” Mom?!?!?! The lady who can’t cook? “Okay, you cannot tell her this, but she actually make nuoc mau very good.” Later, I asked my mom about her nuoc mau. “I buy for you.” I guess she doesn’t make it anymore.

So when she brought over a jar, I poured half of it into the claypot, added the fish and some water and cooked away.


Obviously, I did something wrong.

“You’re supposed to add other stuff, Stupid,” my brother said matter-of-factly when I told him of my goof up.


The next batch included fish sauce (I should have figured that out), pepper, salt and some SUGAR. Duh.

I poured over Andrea Nguyen’s Into the Vietnamese Kitchen for any helpful hints. She uses brown sugar. Hey, if she uses it, then so will I.


The Boy’s Reaction: “You have finally perfected this recipe.”

I perfected this on Mother’s Day, so I guess it was only right to have Van taste test this for me.

Van’s Reaction: “Honey, I like this!”

Great, next time you can make the nuoc mau instead of buying it. Cheater.

And yes, roses for Mother's Day.

Caramelized Catfish in Claypot (Ca Kho To)

enough cat fish for one layer in your claypot (I used two 1″ steaks and then a 3″ tail)
2 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons fish sauce
3 tablespoons caramel sauce (nuoc mau)
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons olive oil (I am disillusioned and sometimes forget I’m not Italian – so if you’re a purist, use a neutral-tasting oil like vegetable oil)
4 green onion stalks, each stalk chopped into three pieces

Whisk the garlic, fish sauce, caramel sauce, black pepper and sugar together. Add fish. Leave to marinade for at least 15 minutes. (You can also wrap it up and leave it in the fridge to marinade until dinner the next night.)

Over medium-high heat, add oil. When heated, add green onion and cook until it barely, barely wilts (2 minutes at most). Add the fish and marinade. Cover claypot and heat  until simmered. Then bring had down to medium-low and let cook for about 30 minutes. Keep an eye on it every 10 minutes. Don’t stir or you’ll break up the fish. It’s okay to carefully flip it though. It’s also okay to add some water if this is too salty for you (or if it looks like there isn’t enough sauce).

Serve with rice. Often served alongside canh chau (I don’t know why – it just is). Get approval from your Vietnamese mother.

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