This dish uses a caramel sauce but not in the French sense which most people would be familiar with, where caramel is made by heating sugar with water, milk or cream and used in desserts. The caramel sauce used in this popular Vietnamese dish called “Ca Kho To” (Vietnamese braised fish in clay pot) is sugar mixed with fish sauce. This kind of caramel sauce is widely used in Vietnamese cooking for braising dishes to provide an intense, sweet and savoury umami packed flavour to foods and also produce a glazed appearance.
This dish is best cooked in a clay pot. Clay pots are good to use for braising and slow cooking dishes as it doesn’t get as hot as metal so it keeps foods at a low simmer, it distributes heat evenly, holds temperature at a constant rate and retains the moisture in ingredients. This helps in the caramelizing process as it gently cooks and develops flavour. Clay pots also retain heat so that long after serving your food it will still be hot.
I have to confess that I have broken two clay pots while cooking. Clay pots require special care when using. They have to be soaked in water first before use and are very sensitive to sudden temperature changes (ie: allow the clay pot to warm gradually and do not add cold liquid to a hot pot). If you do not use or care for your clay pot properly it can crack.
But I have found a crack proof clay pot…it says so on the box and I have not had any trouble with it so far. I don’t even have to pre-soak it in water either. This clay pot is like the non-stick version of frying pans.
I found it at Lucky supermarket on Brisbane Street in Northbridge.
This dish has intense flavours with a savoury umami fish sauce based caramelised sauce balanced with sweet, salty and peppery flavours with hints of chilli and ginger. The resulting sauce is delicious that I would just be content with having the sauce with rice.
• ~500g fish fillets (I used coral trout), cut into 3-4inch pieces
• 1/3 cup white sugar
• ¼ cup fish sauce
• 4 shallots, thinly sliced
• 3-4 fresh chillies, sliced/deseeded
• 2-3 slices ginger, julienned
• 3 cloves crushed garlic
• ½-1 cup young coconut juice (warmed in microwave)
• freshly ground black pepper
• coriander for garnish
To make the caramel sauce
Cook the sugar in a small saucepan over low heat, swirling the pan constantly until the sugar liquefies and becomes brown and caramelized (be careful that you don’t let the sugar go too dark brown or it will burn and you’ll get a bitter taste). Remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in the fish sauce (it will smoke and bubble vigorously).
Return the sugar/fish sauce mixture to low heat and gently boil for about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally until the sugar has dissolved. Add the shallots to the saucepan and some freshly ground pepper to taste. Set aside to cool before using.
Putting it all together
Heat a little peanut oil in a claypot on medium heat, add the garlic, ginger and chillies and stir fry for a bit until fragrant.
Add the caramel sauce into the claypot and then add in the fish pieces. Add in some young coconut juice to just barely cover the fish.
Cover the claypot, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for about 45 minutes, turning the fish occasionally (the sauce with thicken and the fish will caramelize and brown). Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Serve with rice topped with coriander.