Full disclosure: I actually used to hate catfish because of its muddy/earthen flavor. But throughout the years, I’ve learned to appreciate this meaty bottom-feeding fish that at first looks quite intimidating with its dragon-like whiskers. Growing up, my aunt would make delicious Vietnamese food for us for Sunday dinners. It was akin to the Sunday roast dinner that many American families have, but rather than a huge roast, we would have specialty dishes that required lots of time and preparation. I have lost count of how many times I’ve watched my aunt cooking this dish.
With the widespread popularity of pho and eggrolls being the ambassador foods of Vietnamese cuisine, many equally delicious Vietnamese dishes have been hidden in their shadow. My family actually never made pho at home because of how time and labor intensive it is. Ca kho to, however, is relatively easy and quick to make and packs such a punch of flavor. There are recipes that utilize a pre-made caramel sauce. I am going to challenge my readers to make their own caramel. It is such an easy and cheap product to make; yet its ready-made versions are often overpriced at grocery stores. And if I have any pet peeve it’s got to be overpaying for something that is not all that difficult to make myself. So, have a little faith in yourself, and give caramel a try! Once you master this skill, you can make caramel sauces for desserts, caramel candies, and even caramel sugar art if you are extra ambitious.
Use fresh coconut water from a young coconut if possible (water from a brown coconut is no good). This will imbue your fish with the most intense and delightful coconut flavor.
I love getting my fish at the Asian grocery store because they offer fish cleaning and cutting services, which saves me lots of time and unnecessary mess in my kitchen. Have your butcher cut the catfish into steaks, as boneless filets will easily fall apart in the braising process.
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
1 tbsp peanut oil
1 lb catfish steaks
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup fresh coconut water
1 large shallot, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/4 cup fish sauce
1/4 cup oyster sauce
1/4 cup water
1 red jalapeno, sliced
green onion, chopped
Place sugar into a saucepan on medium-high heat. Allow sugar to melt. Mix sugar crystals with melted sugar to ensure an even caramel. Continue heating until melted sugar becomes a light caramel brown color. At this point, add coconut water. Mix well and continue boiling on medium heat until the sauce reduces to the point where it can coat the back of a wooden spoon (~20 minutes)
Meanwhile, heat a deep frying pan on high. Drizzle with oil and sear catfish steaks on medium high heat until golden brown (3-5 minutes each side). Remove fish from pan and add in garlic, shallot, and red jalapeno into frying pan. Allow to sauté for 3-5 minutes until shallot softens.
Add seared catfish back into the pan and add fish sauce, oyster sauce, and a splash of water. Once the coconut caramel has thickened, add it into the catfish and mix well with the sauce. Allow catfish to braise in the sauce on medium low heat until sauce thickens and each side of the catfish has absorbed a thin coating of the sauce (~10 minutes). Flip catfish once one side has taken on a nice caramel color and allow the other side to braise in the sauce.
Adjust seasonings to taste: by adding in a splash of water, oyster sauce, fish sauce, or sugar.
Garnish with green onion and serve with white rice. Enjoy!