Vietnamese recipe: Ca Kho To (Catfish in Caramel Sauce)

Pho (beef noodle soup) may be the most popular Vietnamese dish around the world.  It truly is great food, and I’m glad many have come to love it.  Pho, however, is not the most commonly eaten dish in Vietnamese households.  It requires a lot of time and patience.  It’s great for having a bunch of people over at your house now and then. To eat a single bowl as an individual, it’s best to visit a restaurant that can keep a large pot of it going all day.

If not Pho, what is most commonly made at home?  One dish is Ca Kho To.  In English, you can call it “clay pot catfish” or “braised fish in caramelized sauce” – something like that.  It’s very common in southern Vietnam, where I was born.  It’s a rich and flavorful dish, featuring a unique sweet and salty sauce.  I call Ca Kho To the Meatloaf of southern Vietnamese cooking – that yummy dish that Mom always made when you were growing up.  Even today, I miss my mom’s cooking.  But I recently realized that I have spent more years in my life living away from home than living at home.  Therefore I should probably learn how to make the food I loved from Mom’s kitchen.  Ca Kho To is #1!

So here’s what I have learned so far about making Ca Kho To.  I made some last night, in fact.  It was really yummy, to my surprise 🙂  Now before you get scared about this being too complex or fancy, please don’t think it is!  I am not a fancy chef, nor do I have the patience to spend a lot of time cooking.  Think of this recipe a quick-and-dirty way to make food while retaining the essence of what makes it good.  I think I spent under 30 minutes making this (well maybe 45 as I let it simmer on the stove while I read my e-mail).

1) Preparation.  The first thing you’ll need is the fish.  Although many fishes will do, you’ll typically see catfish being used.  It’s thick enough to braise (without falling apart), and it’s fatty enough to suck in all the flavor.  Go to your fish market and get a fish.  Get a real fish with bones, not a fillet.  Fillets are wussy; bones help it with flavor!  I usually get a fish between 2-3lbs.  If your fish monger is willing, have them cut it up into inch-wide center cut steaks (you can leave the tail section longer).  Or you can do that at home – it’s a good excuse to invest in a cleaver for your kitchen 🙂  Some recipes will tell you only to use the center steaks (and use the rest of other dishes like Canh Chua).  These sections are indeed the best tasting and best looking, but you can use the whole fish too.  I always use it all – once again, I’m the lazy cook type.

The name of the dish says “clay pot” but you really don’t need one. Clay pots are sexy, so I wouldn’t discourage you from getting one. But I have limited cupboard space, so I have remained lean with pots and pans.  Any thick skillet or saucepan will do, as long as it can hold some sauce.  Pour some oil on the pot and lay the fish on it. 

2) The sauce.  The magic with Ca Kho To is the next phase – making the sauce.  If you’ve never had it, it would be hard to describe.  Sweet, salty, rich.  But once you’ve had it, you’ll always remember it!  The main ingredients you’ll need are simply fish sauce and sugar.  If you want to make any Vietnamese food, get yourself a bottle of fish sauce (Nuoc Mam) at an Asian grocer.  It’s used everywhere!  Even in Thai cooking too.  You’ll also want some garlic, shallots, black pepper, and chili peppers for seasoning.  I’ll break this phase into three steps.

2a) Fish sauce and sugar.  Mix the fish sauce and sugar in a bowl.  I used about 1/2 cup of fish sauce and nearly that much sugar.  It will depend on how much fish you have and how much sauce you like.  Various people will debate about the right proportion.  It’s somewhere between 1:1 fish sauce to sugar, or 4:3.  You’ll have to taste test to see what tastes right to you.

2b) Caramel sauce.  The other sauce to mix in is called Nuoc Mau (“colored water”) – the caramel sauce.  It’s really just sugar and water, cooked in a way that the sugar caramelizes into this gooey, molasses-like stuff.  This blog called Wandering Chopsticks shows you how how to make Nuoc Mao.  The nice thing is that you can make this once and use it forever.  My batch of Nuoc Mau was made like a year ago and sits in a small jar in my pantry.  If you’re too lazy, you can try a bottle of Kecap Manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce) instead.  Either way, you only need enough to make the sauce dark looking and a little thicker.

2c) Seasonings.  Throw some garlic, shallots, black pepper, and chili peppers in your bowl and stir.  Those proportions are up to you.  I prefer it heavy on black pepper.  In fact, I use whole pepper balls rather than ground peppers with this dish.  Ca Kho To is not typically a spicy dish.  I love spicy food though, so I like it heavy with chili peppers too.  Last night I went with fresh jalapenos instead of chili peppers.  Once the sauce is ready, pour it over the fish.  If you have time, let it marinate.  Flip the fish so the sauce can marinate on all sides.

3) Cook the fish.  Set the stove to high for a few minutes.  You’ll see the sauce boil a bit.  We’re searing the fish now.  Flip it over to cook the other side.  You’ll see that the fish is cooked because it looks white and a little soft, rather than reddish-pink.  After a few minutes, turn the heat down to med-low.  Cover the pot.  Let it simmer for 20-30 minutes.  The sauce will reduce a bit, with the end result being a thick, rich sauce.  You’ll want to check on the fish occasionally, to make sure the sauce hasn’t reduced too much and to flip the fish over a couple times.  Add water (but not too much) if it has gotten too dry.  You can also add more fish sauce or sugar if the taste is off at this point.

4) Voila!  You have finished cooking Ca Kho To!  Put the fish and sauce in a bowl.  Serve it with white rice, and don’t forget to pour the sauce on your rice for a very rich taste.  Vietnamese meals are usually very balanced.  Since this is a salty dish, people will often contrast it with something sour, and/or with a vegetable dish.  The most popular combo is Ca Kho To with Canh Chua – a sweet & sour soup that is also made with catfish.  A quick combo would be to steam some broccoli, asparagus, or cai lan (Chinese broccoli). Enjoy your homestyle Vietnamese meal!

It has been a great experience and accomplishment for me to learn Ca Kho To. Many thanks to my mom for helping me learn her recipe, and of course, for many years of being an awesome mom! To philosophize a bit, I wonder how many 1st/2nd generation Vietnamese will end up learning to cook traditional dishes like this. Probably yes in highly ethnic areas like Orange County, Houston, or San Jose. But will it one day become a lasagna that many Americans can make in their own homes, regardless of their ethnic background? Or will it just be relegated to restaurant fare? Only time will tell.

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