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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Cá Kho Tộ (Caramelized Catfish in Clay Pot)

Cá Kho Tộ (Caramelized Catfish in Clay Pot) is one of those popular, authentic Vietnamese braised dishes that is cooked in clay pots. Lots of ginger, shallot and garlic along with the fish sauce and caramel sauce impart an incredible savory sweet flavors. Cá Kho Tộ is excellently paired with steamed rice, cucumber, salad or steamed vegetables.

I usually buy a lived catfish about 4 pounds and have it to clean the fish really well. These day, most of the Asian markets offer to clean the fish inside out.  First, they soak the catfish in really hot water then use a brillo pad or a metal scrub to scrape off the black layer on the fish skin, making the fish skin really white.  Then they remove the fins and gut.  You can also request to have your fish cut  the way you want it.  When making Cá Kho Tộ or Canh Chua Cá (Sour Catfish Soup), I like cuts of an inch thick steak.  I use the head and tail to make Vietnamese sour catfish soup (Canh Chua Cá), the remaining goes straight into a pan for braising. 

I always enjoy cooking food in clay pots; it's very nostalgic. This was how food was cooked in the good old days in Vietnam as in other parts of the world. Clay pot was a lot cheaper than stainless steel pot and  was a popular cooking method as it retains heat very well. It also heats up evenly, thus making the food inside, especially meat, cook faster while maintaining its full flavor.

My girls and husband are huge fans of Cá Kho Tộ. It's a joy for my husband to see the braised fish in the clay pot. It's very appetizing. So when I braise a big size catfish, I would use a big shallow pan that would fit all the catfish steaks in a single layer. Once the braised fish is done, I serve it in a clay pot just the way he likes it. 

1 Catfish (about 4 lbs), ask  to have your fish clean and cut into 1 inch thick steaks
3 tablespoons Brown Sugar
3 tablespoons Olive Oil or cooking Oil
3 Cloves Garlic, finely chopped or
1 tablespoon Garlic Powder
3 Shallots, finely chopped
3 tablespoons julienned fresh Ginger
4 tablespoons Fish Sauce
1 teaspoon Ground Pepper
2-3 whole Red Chili Peppers, optional
Preparing Fish

Wash fish steaks and pat dry. Set it aside.  Save the fish tail and head to make soup.
Braising Fish

Bring a pan to high heat.  Add oil and sugar.  As soon as the sugar starts turning brown, reduce heat to medium.  Add ginger, garlic and shallots.

Cook it for about 30 seconds until fragrant, add fish in a single layer.

Gently flip the fish with a spatula over after a minute.  Add fish sauce, garlic powder, and black pepper.  Twirl the pan to distribute the sauce evenly.  Now toss a few whole red peppers  in the pan if preferred.

do not add red chili peppers at this time

If your kids will enjoy this dish with you, be careful not to smash the red chili peppers or remove the stems from the red chili peppers as this will unleash a scorching flavor on the fish.  Cover with the lid. Reduce heat to low and simmer for about 20-25 minutes.  During the simmering process, gently turn the fish over with a spatula occasionally to coat both sides with the caramel sauce; use a spoon to spoon the sauce over the fish until it's fully coated.  When the sauce is thicken and the fish steaks are covered with rich brown color, you know it's time to bring out the white rice and fresh slices of cucumber.