Ca Kho – Caramelized Catfish

Ca Kho 1This week’s Mom’s 52 entry is Ca Kho, a Vietnamese staple.  Serve this dish with a side of jasmine rice drizzled with the sauce in this recipe, and you will have family members fighting over the leftovers like mine did after mom and I made this dish this week.

Ca Kho vs. Ca Kho To – what’s the difference?  You may see this dish referenced as Ca Kho To in restaurants.  The “To” simply refers to the special clay pot that can be used to make this dish. Since most of us don’t have this clay pot in our kitchen cabinets, this recipe uses a simple deep skillet.  Hence, this recipe is for Ca Kho.

A traditional clay pot can be used to make this dish. Find clay pots like this in different sizes and colors at most Vietnamese or Chinese supermarkets.
A traditional clay pot can be used to make this dish. Find clay pots like this in different sizes and colors at most Vietnamese or Chinese supermarkets.

Ca Kho – Caramelized Catfish

INGREDIENTS – to serve 6, if served with another dish (if served alone with rice, serves 3-4):

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  • 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)
  • 3 cloves of garlic, peeled & sliced
  • 2 shallots, peeled & sliced
  • 3 Tbsp. sugar
  • 1 tsp. ground black pepper, plus a little more to lightly dust the fish
  • 1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
  • 1/4 C. nuoc mam, aka fish sauce (Squid brand, preferably)
  • 1.5 lbs. of catfish fillets, patted dry and sliced into large 2″x4″ chunks
  • chopped green onions for garnish, approximately 3 stalks

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STEP 1:  MARINATE THE CATFISH

  1. Heat 2 Tbsp. of EVOO in a deep skillet on high heat.
  2. Add the garlic and shallot slices.  Using chopsticks, toss gently for 30 seconds, just to bring out the aroma of the garlic and shallots.  This will brown them fairly easily.

    Quickly fry the shallots and garlic to bring out their aroma and essence.
    Quickly fry the garlic and shallots to bring out their aroma and essence.
  3. Remove the browned garlic and shallots from the skillet (leave the oil), and place them in a small bowl.  Set the bowl aside.
  4. Sprinkle 1 Tbsp. of sugar onto the oil in the skillet.  Watch the sugar.  Since the heat is still on high, the sugar will start to brown very quickly, in about one minute or less.  When the sugar has caramelized to a medium brown color, immediately remove the skillet from heat.

    The sugar will burn very quickly after it turns a light to medium brown, so remove skillet from heat immediately.
    The sugar will burn very quickly after it turns a medium brown, so remove skillet from heat immediately.
  5. Add to the skillet 1 tsp. of ground pepper, 1/4 C. nuoc mam (fish sauce), and 2 Tbsp. of sugar.  Stir these together.  Optional: For a spicy kick, also add 1/2 tsp. of crushed red pepper flakes.

    The marinade.
    The marinade.
  6. Add the catfish fillets to the skillet, one piece at at time and flipping each piece once to coat before adding the next piece.  Mom often uses catfish steaks because they hold their shape better, but fillets are easier to eat because they’re boneless.
  7. Lightly dust each piece of fish in the skillet with additional ground black pepper.
  8. Top the fillets with the browned garlic and shallot slices you previously set aside.
  9. Let the fillets marinate for 45 minutes to an hour before proceeding to the next step.

    Catfish fillets marinating in the caramel sauce.
    Catfish fillets marinating in the caramel sauce.

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STEP 2:  COOK THE CATFISH

  1. Using high heat, bring your skillet of marinated catfish to a simmer.  This should happen fairly quickly.
  2. Once the sauce begins to simmer, turn the heat down to as low as possible to maintain the simmer.  Some key things to pay attention to:
  • Simmer. Do not let the sauce boil, or it will burn.  (If your sauce level gets too low, add a little Coco Rico coconut soda to the skillet so the sauce does not burn.   Do not add water, which will dilute the flavor.)
  • Cover the skillet for the first 5 minutes and then, simmer uncovered for an additional 25 minutes.  (If using catfish steaks instead of fillets, increase cooking time an additional 10-15 minutes, as steaks are larger and thicker.)
  • During this 30 minute cooking process, do two things:  1) use a flat spoon to baste the fish fillets with the simmering liquid every few minutes, leaning the pot to the side to scoop the sauce more easily; and 2) about halfway through the 30 minutes, top the fillets with chopped green onions.

    Baste the fish often while it cooks.
    Baste the fish often while it cooks.

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Serve Ca Kho with plenty of sauce scooped into the serving platter.  Your family will love drizzling the caramel sauce atop jasmine rice.  For a traditional Vietnamese meal, also serve this dish with Canh Chua Ca.

Was this Mom’s 52 recipe helpful?  Do you have any questions about this recipe?  Please post your comments below.  If I don’t know the answer, I’ll send your question to mom!

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