This homestyle Ca Kho To (Vietnamese Caramelized and Braised Catfish) is a flavor-packed dish that is perfectly braised in a sweet and savory sauce.
Growing up, a typical dinner at home usually included Ca Kho To (Vietnamese Braised Catfish) and Canh Chua Ca (Vietnamese Sweet and Sour Soup). These two dishes complement each other so well, they go hand in hand. Add in the fact that they share the same main ingredient (catfish), makes it a no brainer to make them for the same meal.
Ca Kho To is a traditional Vietnamese dish that is typically cooked in a clay pot. The clay material offers great heat distribution that helps with caramelizing and braising. Since many households don't readily have a clay pot, a standard metal sauce pan or small Dutch oven works just fine. Use one that is large enough to snuggly hold the catfish in a single layer. Ideally, each piece needs to be in contact with the braising sauce for maximum flavor and even cooking.
What Type of Fish Can I Use for Ca Kho To?
Traditionally, catfish is used for this Ca Kho To recipe and is what we use as well. Catfish is coveted for its firm and meaty flesh. These qualities helps keep it moist and intact during the braising process. It is also quite inexpensive and readily available here in San Diego. If you don’t like catfish, or have difficulty finding it, you can substitute with any fish you prefer. However, avoid fish that are too delicate to stand up to braising. The star of the show here is the caramelized sweet and savory sauce. Braise it with any fish and it will be fantastic. Try to use fish steaks since the bones will help keep it moist and tender as well as maintain its structure.
How to Make Mom's Ca Kho To Recipe
There are 3 main steps to this catfish recipe: Caramelizing the sauce, braising and reducing. Yes, that is it! I will break down the steps here. One important note: have all your ingredients ready before you begin. When you start making the caramel sauce, it can go from perfect to burnt very quickly! You won’t have much time to measure ingredients once you start the sauce.
1) Heat a pot over medium low heat and add oil and sugar.
2) Leave it undisturbed and let the mixture slowly begin to bubble.
3) Once the sugar crystals have melted, give it a stir. You'll start to see the sugar caramelizing.
4) After about 5 minutes you'll have a rich caramel color. Be careful not to let it burn.
5) Quickly add the garlic, chilis and fish sauce. Give it a quick stir to incorporate the fish sauce with the caramel sauce.
6) Add the catfish steaks and arrange into a single layer. Add the coconut water and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for 5 minutes over medium-low heat.
7) Carefully flip each piece of catfish to braise on the other side. They will be quite delicate at this point. Cover and continue to simmer for another 5 minutes.
8) Remove the lid and continue to simmer uncovered over medium heat until the caramel sauce reduces to your desired consistency (about 15-20 minutes).
Keep an eye on the sauce as it reduces. The Ca Kho To is ready when the sauce has thickened to your preferred consistency. Some prefer a very thick syrupy sauce. Others prefer a runnier, broth-like consistency. I like it right in between, thin enough to pour, yet thick enough to coat the fish.
This Vietnamese Caramelized Catfish in Clay Pot recipe is great when topped with a generous amount of black pepper, fried shallots and chopped scallions. So many different flavors and textures in a small little pot. Spoon some sauce (along with some little bits of fried shallots and scallions) over rice for the perfect bite.
- 3-5 catfish steaks, 1"-2" thick
- 1 stalk of green onion, chopped, optional
- 2 tablespoon fried shallots
- black pepper, to taste
- ¾ cups of coconut water or water
CARAMEL SAUCE INGREDIENTS
- 1 tablespoon oil
- 2 tablespoon sugar
- 3 cloves of garlic
- 2-4 Thai chilis, optional
- 2 tablespoon fish sauce
- Give the catfish steaks a good rinse. If the skin feels slimy, rub it with salt then rinse it off.
Make the Caramel Sauce
- Before you begin, have all your ingredients ready and measured out. You will need to work fast when the caramel sauce is ready.
- Heat the clay pot over medium-low heat. You can use a saucepan or small Dutch oven if you don't have a clay pot. Be sure the pot is large enough to fit the catfish in a single layer.
- Add oil and sugar to the clay pot. Do not stir. Leave it alone and allow the sugar crystals to melt. Once the sugar has completely melted, begin stirring until the sauce transforms into a caramel color.
- Add garlic, Thai chilis and fish sauce and give it a quick stir.
Braise the Catfish
- Add the catfish steaks and turn them in the sauce to coat on all sides.
- Add coconut water or water until the catfish is halfway submerged. Turn up the heat and allow it to come to a boil.
- Cover and simmer over medium-low heat for 10 minutes. The sauce should be at a medium boil, with constant bubbles, not a full rolling boil. Halfway through cooking, carefully flip the catfish pieces over to simmer on the other side.
- Remove the lid and turn the heat up to medium. Cook uncovered for another 15-20 minutes until the sauce has reduced to a syrupy consistency.
- Top with black pepper, fried shallots and chopped green onions.