Vietnamese ca kho to, or catfish braised in caramel sauce, is traditionally cooked in a claypot. I do own a claypot but I have a strong suspicion that it is only meant for the tabletop and not the stovetop. So, I cooked this dish in a non-stick pan. Other than that, the ingredients and cooking procedure are authentic Vietnamese.
First, about catfish… There are so many kinds. In the Philippines, three types are used for cooking—hito (dark gray skin on the back; beige skin underneath), kanduli (a fork-tailed catfish endemic to the island of Luzon) and Pangasius (large shark catfish native to Southeast and South Asia; commercially sold in the Philippines as cream dory). I used hito but any of these three kinds can be used to cook this Vietnamese-style catfish braised in caramel sauce.
In Philippine markets, hito is sold live. The fish are contained in a net, you choose which one you like (or specify if you want small, medium or large ones) and the fishmonger picks your choice from among the wiggling catfish inside the net. You have the option to have it gutted right there or you may bring it home alive and do the gutting yourself.
Personally, I don’t have any inclination to do the gutting. Cleaning catfish, especially the part about removing the sliminess, is a lot of work already. Killing the fish and gutting it is just unnecessary stress for me. Since Speedy was the one going to the market earlier, I simply specified that I wanted two large catfish, gutted but left whole.
At home, I rinsed the fish several times then wiped them as well as I could. I rubbed them generously with baking soda then left them in a covered bowl to allow the baking soda time to draw out the slimy substance that covers the bodies of the fish. Ten minutes later, I scraped off the baking soda with the blunt side of a knife. Off came the slimy substance. But, as an added step, I rinsed the fish to remove all trances of baking soda, rubbed the fish all over very generously with rock salt, gave them another rinse then wiped them dry.
Because I needed only the middle portion of the fish, I sliced each fish into four pieces—head, two fish steaks from the middle of the body and the tail. The heads and tails were deep fried; the fish steaks were braised in caramel sauce.
If, in your part of the world, catfish steaks can be bought cleaned and prepped, and ready for cooking, use them by all means.
I cooked this Vietnamese-style catfish braised in caramel sauce as a second dish for today’s lunch . The main dish was really the deep-fried heads (cut just below the digestive cavity) and tails (cut to include a generous portion of the body). If you’re cooking this braised catfish as the main dish, you might want to double or even triple the recipe.
Vietnamese-style Catfish Braised in Caramel Sauce
- 3 thick catfish steaks
For the caramel sauce
- thinly sliced scallions
- 1 bird's eye chili thiinly sliced
Rinse the fish steaks and pat dry with a kitchen towel.
In a shallow pan (large enough to hold the fish steaks in a single layer), stir together the white sugar and two tablespoons coconut juice. Bring to the boil and cook until thickened and amber colored.
Stir the dark brown sugar and fish sauce into the caramelized sugar.
Arrange the fish steaks in a single layer in the pan with the sauce.
Pour in the rest of the coconut water. Sprinkle in the sliced ginger and chili.
When the sauce is simmering, cover the pan, set the heat to low and let the fish cook for about five minutes. Turn the fish over and cook for another four to five minutes.
Scoop out the fish steaks and transfer to a bowl.
Continue to boil the sauce over medium heat until thick and syrupy.
Pour the sauce over the fish steaks.
Garnish the Vietnamese-style catfish braised in caramel sauce with sliced scallions and chili before serving.