This is the second of a short series of simple, homey Vietnamese dishes that my mom & I cooked when she came for a short visit. The first part of the series is linked below.
To remind you, my mom is from the north. Frankly Im no expert on the differences btw north, central and south cuisine except for a few specific variations. So I cant be sure if the way she cooks is because shes from the north or its just the way she does it. For some dishes she uses soy sauce, for others fish sauce. She doesnt add any fish sauce to the pho broth until the very end. For claypot catfish, she adds fish sauce when marinading the fish, not when making the caramel sauce.
Vietnamese caramel sauce is a much darker, longer cooked version of the caramel used for western desserts. I heard you can now buy it in Asian grocery stores, but I included a description if you are confident enough to make it yourself. I wish I had taken pictures while my mom made it, but I was so intently watching to learn it myself that I didnt have time. The caramel sauce has many other uses, like for a claypot prawn dish, a chicken in caramel sauce, and as part of the marinade for grilled meats. Just dont try making crème caramel with it!
Makes about 2 cups, enough for many months of use
1 cup sugar
1.5 cups hot water
In a stainless steel saucepan (NOT nonstick), melt sugar over high heat. When melted, stir continuously until light golden brown (the same color as if making caramel for crème caramel). Turn heat to low. Keep stirring as it boils. Let it boil past the vigorous stage, until the bubbles subside. When the color changes from dark chocolate-brown to strong coffee-brown with a reddish tinge at the edges, remove from heat and cool 10-15 seconds (you can leave your burner on).
Slowly add hot water (hot from the tap is ok) and stand aside carefully as the melted sugar explodes into many bubbles. Place back over burner and turn to medium high. The mixture will be a sticky clumpy mass, so stir well until the clump dissolves. When the sauce returns to a boil, turn off heat and set aside until completely cool (do NOT add hot caramel sauce to cool ingredients, it will seize up and ruin the sauce).
Claypot Catfish (Ca Kho To)
Serves 2 (or 2-4 as part of a larger meal)
For the marinade:
1 tablespoon caramel sauce (from above)
1/4 chicken bouillon cube
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
pepper (about 10 squeezes from a pepper ball)
2 catfish steaks (about .8 pounds)
1 clove garlic
1.5 teaspoons vegetable oil
Rinse the catfish and marinade for atleast 30 minutes. Slice garlic and shallot thinly and place at the bottom of the claypot. Drizzle oil over. Place catfish in one layer in claypot. Pour remaining marinade over. Cover claypot and heat over medium low. When it comes to a boil, turn down to very low. Simmer for a total of 1 hour, occasionally nudging fish chunks to keep from sticking. When nudging, feel the fish, because when it feels firm, flip gently (try not to break up the fish, though it may be unavoidable). Its ready when the fish is soft but not completely falling apart, and the sauce is a thick almost sticky consistency.
I used a small claypot for this small serving size; if you are increasing the recipe, you should use a medium or large claypot so the catfish can still be laid in one layer. You could probably use an enameled casserole if you dont have a claypot.