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Dec 5, 2005 01:35 PM

Mom-Cooked Vietnamese: Part 2 (Claypot Catfish)

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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 I’m no expert on the differences btw north, central and south cuisine except for a few specific variations. So I can’t be sure if the way she cooks is because she’s from the north or it’s just the way she does it. For some dishes she uses soy sauce, for others fish sauce. She doesn’t 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 didn’t 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 don’t try making crème caramel with it!

Caramel Sauce
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 shallot
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). It’s 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 don’t have a claypot.


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  1. Wow Alice, beautiful. Thanks for sharing your series with us. I've been intrigued by the concept of savory Vietnamese caramel sauce dishes but never had a clue where to even begin. Your explanation makes it seem a little less intimidating (knock on wood). Would you serve rice with this one?

    6 Replies
    1. re: petradish

      Let me add another big THANK YOU - this is the best kind of post!

      1. re: petradish

        I too have been too fearful of vietnamese caramel to make it, but after watching my mom it seems easier than western caramel. I was very antsy while the sugar was boiling, worried that it would be too burnt. I kept asking "Now? Is it ready now? What about now?" But my mom kept stirring and saying not yet. So unlike western caramel, you don't have to worry that if you don't remove it at the exact time, you'll have burnt caramel. Just keep stirring and letting it boil until the bubbles almost all subside. Look for the reddish tinge by stirring up some caramel against the side of the saucepan and letting it flow back down. The thin coating of caramel against the saucepan lets you see the reddish tinge.

        And after adding the hot water and after the mini-explosion calmed down, I was upset that the caramel was a big clumpy mess, but that's what it's supposed to be, and it will liquify after a couple minutes of stirring.

        Oh and yes, definitely serve claypot catfish with rice. All of the dishes in my series are served with rice unless I will say so specifically.

        1. re: petradish

          My family eats w/ jasmine rice and some sort of greens like water spinach (rau muong) or cabbage to cut through the saltiness of the fish. I think my mom might use more fish sauce, so it's pretty salty on its own. Finishing w/ any mild broth-based soup (canh) is a refreshing end of meal palate cleanser and digestive.

          1. re: Carb Lover

            That sounds really nice with greens & jasmine rice.

            Since we're on the subject, do you happen to have a chicken in caramel recipe?

            1. re: petradish

              Not really, my mom never made chicken clay pot and I've never made it either. Charles Phan of The Slanted Door in SF has a recipe at Epicurious though...


              1. re: petradish

                My mom's chicken caramel recipe is very simple. It's just chicken pieces (boneless and/or skinless is up to you), sliced ginger coins, and vietnamese caramel. And chicken bouillon cube, which she uses for everything. I can't remember if the salting agent is fish sauce, soy sauce or salt (I have a very old rough recipe at home).

                It's a simple dish that I love but isn't very fancy. You might like Charles Phan's recipe (which Carb Lover posted in her reply) over my mom's because I don't know if you would like the simple taste of my mom's recipe.

                Interestingly, when we made the claypot catfish I asked her why can't we make chicken caramel in the claypot? She said chicken and other meats don't cook to a pleasing texture in the claypot, but fish does, because fish meat cooks quicker than chicken. I then asked wouldn't the claypot simply cook the chicken/meat long and slow and make it tender, just like in a regular pot, and she simply said it wouldn't taste as good. She told me if I REALLY wanted to use the claypot, then cook meats in a regular pot and serve them in a claypot.

                So Carb Lover's past report where she cooked short ribs in a pan and simply poured them into the claypot at serving time is exactly what my mom recommends!

                So I'm interested in how or why the Chinese (and other cooks) regularly cook meats in the claypot. Since my mom doesn't buy into that cooking school.

          2. Your Vietnamese threads are a lot of fun and very informative... the dishes also look so good. Makes me think I need to do a "Grandmother cooks Shanghai" segment one day.

            1 Reply
            1. re: Curtis

              Please do a Shanghai series!

            2. Those caramel-coated nuggets look delish, Alice. Did you cut the catfish steaks into chunks or did they naturally fall apart while cooking? Did you pre-soak your claypot? Sadly mine, which looks a lot like yours, is now cracked since I didn't pre-soak last time! I have a backup claypot though.

              My mom's recipe isn't that different, but I think she adds some sort of tea (maybe lotus?) infused in water to the sauce since her's ends up being a little more saucy. Adds an interesting herbal note that some would either like or hate. She also adds whole dried red chilies. She uses salmon steaks sometimes, but I like catfish better. Thanks for another instructive post, and look forward to the next!

              3 Replies
              1. re: Carb Lover

                This is the one dish from my childhood I consistently make. I love it with sticky rice. Alice, your dish looks EXACTLY like my mom's. I add big slices of ginger and rather than making a caramel sauce, I simply melt a few tablespoons of sugar in a tablespoon of water and pour it over the mixture. It makes for a saucier ca kho. Thanks for a wonderful post.


                1. re: Carb Lover

                  Oh I'm sorry to hear your claypot cracked! We went to the exact same store you did to buy my claypots (yeah I've never had one until now), so mine is in fact the same as yours.

                  To "break in" the claypots, she filled them with water, placed them over medium heat, brought the water to a boil, then turned off the heat and let the claypots sit until they cooled completely. She said they don't need any further future soaking, as long as I NEVER USE ANYTHING HIGHER THAN LOW HEAT. Sorry I don't mean to scream. Medium-low heat might be ok if the claypot is full.

                  Oh, and I did not break apart the catfish steaks before cooking. When flipping, I wasn't careful enough so each steak split into 4 pieces at that point.

                  I think using some sort of tea and red chiles would add a nice complexity to this dish. I think making it saucier would also be an improvement. Though those sticky bits in the bottom were really really heavenly.

                  1. re: Alice Patis

                    Thanks for your condolences. :-(

                    My time w/ my claypot was short-lived, but well, at least I won't feel guilty anymore for not using it enough! I prepped it similar to how you did and used very low heat on my gas stove, yet it still cracked.

                    When I polled others here before this, some said it should be pre-soaked every time (soak longer the longer it will be used), others said sporadically. I made some sort of braised eggplant that only cooked for like 20-30 min., but it started emitting spitting water noises about halfway through from the lengthwise crack near the handle. It didn't fall apart or anything drastic, just a little crack that means it's no good anymore.

                    From your comments below, I'll have to agree w/ your mom about the limitations of claypot cooking. This is one of those tools that I don't quite "get" and doesn't seem that practical for the modern cook. I hope this doesn't discourage you from experimenting w/ yours though...keep us posted!

                2. I have three questions. I have heard the Chinese
                  claypots with the wire around them empart a smoky flavor
                  to what ever is cooked in them. Is this true ?

                  Can the cooking in the clay pot be done in an oven
                  rather than on top of the stove ?

                  What exactly is a " pepper ball " ?



                  2 Replies
                  1. re: Rod

                    Both claypots that I bought with my mom have that wire around them. I asked my mom what it's for and how does it make my claypots different from the other ones. She said it's no difference, it's just for looks. I was doubtful and ventured a WAG (that it makes the pot heat more evenly) and she dismissed it. I'm still doubtful, though I'm not sure the ones with a wire imparts a different taste, because the insides of the pots without wires look exactly the same as the ones with the wire.

                    Maybe someone with more expertise on claypots than my mom knows...Yimster do you know what's with the wire?

                    And I don't know if you can cook in a claypot inside an oven. I'm guessing many people have done that before, just my mom never did.

                    And a pepper ball is a nickname for the various brands of pepper grinders that operate with the squeeze of a hand. Picture of one below.


                    1. re: Alice Patis

                      I was thinking that maybe the wires act as a kind of built-in flame diffuser for stovetop use? Not that there's that much of a matrix of wire there, but you never know...

                      I was thinking of picking up one of the wireless kind, but then I wondered if it might be more vulnerable to cracking. I guess I'll try it, and if it turns into a big mess on my stove, I'll complain to your mom!

                  2. Thanks, Alice! My mom, sister, and I tried our first version of this dish at Pagolac this year, and we loved it, and wondered how to make it. Now I can try to make it for them--though I don't have a claypot and am wondering whether I should bother to get one. (It looks hard to clean!)

                    By the way, my compliments on the handle, Patis. Being Filipino, I know how indispensable fish sauce is in much of Southeast Asian cooking, e.g., this dish!

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: Pia

                      Besides being a fan of the product, Patis is what my sis calls me :-). We grew up in the Philippines. I've been following all of your posts on Pinoy restaurants so I recognize you!

                      You can make Claypot Catfish in a Le Crueset or an enameled pot and I think it'll come out pretty much the same. Anodized aluminum might be ok. Stainless steel will stick too much, nonstick won't be as yummy.

                      I don't know if I like my claypots. I'm sure many cooks swear by them, I just haven't "seen the light" in my short experience with them. It IS hard to clean. On the outside, it will look grungy after just the first use, but of course that gives it character. On the inside, the first time I used my large one, I could not get a spot of burnt rice completely removed from the bottom. The burnt rice was burnt on purpose, and it was 100% yummier than regular-pot-burnt rice and 50% yummier than rice-cooker-burnt rice, but now I'll forever have that little spot of gunk in my claypot.

                      Oh and there's the risk of it cracking, burning your fingers b/c you forgot the lid's hot, it's not easily stackable with other pots. Not to mention I have no idea if that glaze is lead-free. When my parents moved from the Philippines to the US, she packed her iron mortar and wooden pestle, but not her claypots (and she never bought another one).

                      So why'd the heck did I buy a claypot? I blame Yimster and Carb Lover ;-).

                      1. re: Alice Patis

                        I have clay cooking pots from Mexico, both unglazed, and glazed on the inside.
                        What are yours like?