I was whisked back to my childhood when I read the Chowhound post that Alice Patis did on her mother's claypot fish. This was one of the staples growing up and one of the few dishes from my childhood that I have committed to memory. In contrast to my vast love of this dish, I rarely cook it.
So Vietnamese caramel fish or Ca Kho, remains a delicacy that I cook for J and the Asians in my life. I'm insecure about whether someone initiated into tradtional Asian cooking will get this dish. It's the essence of northern Vietnamese cooking. The sweet-salty intense sauced flavors make this dish perfect for a cold night. I made this for a Filipino friend of ours and she said it reminded her of HER childhood. Another reason I don't cook this dish as much as I should, is that I love to serve it with sticky rice. Sticky rice is a dish that requires forethought. First of all, the sticky rice I like is Laotian long grain as opposed to the short grained sushi rice. It needs to be soaked at least four hours and then steamed in a woven basket for 45 minutes. The result is a rice that is sticky without being gooey. There will be a trip to the Eden center in the near future where I replenish my store of long grain sticky rice and Ca Kho will be made. As a side note, it appears my technique (which I learned from my mother) is vastly different from the traditional Caramel Fish which calls for a separate caramel sauce. This is not the definitive version but it's the one in my family.
2 pounds of catfish cut into 2 inch chunks
1/2 cup of nuoc mam
2 tablespoons regular cooking oil
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 medium yellow onion, sliced
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
4 "coins" of slices ginger (ginger sliced into disks)
1 teaspoon Sambal olek
1/4 cup of sugar plus 2 tablespoons of sugar
Liberal amounts of pepper
Marinate the catfish in 1/4 cup of nuoc mam and about a teaspoon of black pepper for at least 15 minutes. In a small pot, sautee the onion, garlic and ginger in the oil and sesame oil until translucent (5 minutes). Add the marinated catfish, sambal, 1/4 cup of nuoc mam and 2 tablespoons of sugar and stir, trying not to break up the fish. Reduce heat to a simmer and cover. In the meantime melt 1/4 cup of sugar and 2 tablespoons of water until the sugar melts and is the color of an old penny. Once the sugar gets to that point, pour it immediately on top of the fish mixture. Deglaze the sugar pan with a few tablespoons of water and pour on top of the ismmering fish. Give the fish a stir and then cover and simmer for about ten minutes. By then the caramel would have melted into the sauce and made the sauce a golden brown color. Simmer for another five minutes to reduce the sauce. Serve with sticky rice. Another good accompaniment is sauteed spinach with lots of garlic.