Vietnamese catfish braised in caramel sauce, or ca kho to, is traditionally cooked in a claypot. I did own a claypot on the day I cooked this dish, but I had a strong suspicion that it was only only meant for the tabletop and not the stovetop.
So, I cooked this dish in a non-stick pan. Other than that, the ingredients and cooking procedure are authentic Vietnamese.
About that catfish… There are several species and what may be available depends on your location. Any catfish can be used but unless the fishmonger has cleaned it for you, it is best to prep the fish properly before cooking.
Best way to remove catfish slime
Scrub with salt? Rinse in vinegar? Soak in food-grade calcium hydroxide? They all work but nothing works better than baking soda. Ten minutes is all it takes.
Now, about the caramel sauce… What is it exactly. It is sugar melted in coconut juice mixed with fish sauce. The liquid evaporates during cooking and the sugar caramelizes and thickens. But to thicken it some more until sticky, the cooking liquid is boiled until syrupy after the fish had cooked and had been scooped out. The syrupy sauce is poured over the catfish staked before they are served.
Just so we’re clear… just so you don’t come up with something nasty… you need the juice of young coconut. See the linked post below to learn how to get the right coconut for this dish.
A guide to coconuts for eating, drinking and cooking
Young and mature coconuts are used differently in cooking. The flesh of young coconuts are soft and sweet. Mature ones have tough flesh that’s best for squeezing coconut milk.
Catfish braised in caramel sauce (ca kho to)
- 3 thick catfish steaks
For the caramel sauce
- ¼ cup white sugar
- 6 tablespoons fresh coconut juice - the water, not coconut milk, and make sure it's from a young coconut
- 1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce - fish sauce
- 1 half-inch knob ginger - peeled and thinly sliced
- 2 bird's eye chilies - thinly sliced
- Rinse the fish steaks and pat dry with a kitchen towel.
- In a shallow pan (large enough to hold the fish steaks in a single layer), stir together the white sugar and two tablespoons coconut juice. Bring to the boil and cook until thickened and amber colored.
- Stir the dark brown sugar and fish sauce into the caramelized sugar.
- Arrange the fish steaks in a single layer in the pan with the sauce.
- Pour in the rest of the coconut water. Sprinkle in the sliced ginger and one chili.
- When the sauce is simmering, cover the pan, set the heat to low and let the fish cook for about five minutes. Turn the fish over and cook for another four to five minutes.
- Scoop out the fish steaks and transfer to a bowl.
- Continue to boil the sauce over medium heat until thick and syrupy.
- Pour the sauce over the fish steaks.
- Garnish the catfish braised in caramel sauce with sliced scallions and the remaining chili before serving.