Vietnamese Clay Pot Catfish or Vietnamese Caramelized Catfish, or Ca Kho Tho is catfish braised in fish sauce and coconut juice and traditionally cooked in a clay pot. This dish is a taste of my childhood and an everyday staple in most Vietnamese families. It's usually eaten with white rice, along with its sister dish, Vietnamese Sour Catfish Soup or Canh Chua.
The caramel part is primarily for color. It involves caramelizing sugar for its rich brown color and using it to coat the catfish before braising. However, in the recipe below, we are cheating with pre-made caramel sauce. You can, of course, make your own by simply dry pan-frying three tablespoons of granulated sugar. Constantly stir until caramelized. Then add a bit of water to liquefy it. I have been burned many times when adding water as it splashes hot caramel everywhere. Pour only a small amount of water, about one tablespoon, and pour slowly.
You can get catfish at any Asian market. Get them thoroughly cleaned and scrubbed. A good fishmonger will scrub the catfish until the greasy black overcoat is completely gone, leaving just the underlying white skin. Also, keep the head and tail. Have the fishmonger halved the head so it’s not so big. A lot of the flavor is in the head and tail so don't let it go to waste.
Vietnamese Caramelized Clay Pot Cat Fish (Cá Kho Tộ )
3 lbs cat fish (slice into 1-inch thick steaks
1 teaspoon of thick soy sauce (this is the short-cut to caramelizing my own sugar)
1/2 cup fish sauce (divided)
Some vegetable oil for frying
3 tablespoons white granulated sugar
2 tablespoons sliced shallots
1/3 can of coconut juice (Coco brand)
1 tablespoon sliced green onions
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Coat the catfish with thick soy sauce. Then marinate with 1/4 cup fish sauce for at least 30 minutes. The fish sauce will toughen up the catfish so that it holds it shape.
In a clay pot or a small pot, coat the bottom with vegetable oil. Fry 1 tablespoon of shallots until fragrant, not brown. Stir in sugar and the other 1/4 cup fish sauce.
Slowly transfer the marinated catfish into the pot. Evenly coat it with sauce.
Let it slowly braised for 20 minutes. Gentle move the fish around so all the slices soak up the sauce.
Add in the coconut juice and braise for 10 more minutes.
In a small pan, deep fry the remainder of the shallots until golden brown. Keep an eye on it and stir constantly for even browning. Use a slotted spoon to remove the crispy fried shallots from the pan and place on a plate lined with paper towels to absorb the excess oil. Top fish with fried shallots, green onions and pepper.
Serve with steamed white rice.