Braised Fish in Clay Pot (Ca Kho To)

There are some classic foods that remind us of our youth and this is the dish that transports me back in time.  Perhaps it’s the uniqueness of this dish that makes it stand out in my mind or perhaps it’s when I think about this dish I am reminded of my Mom’s boundless energy and painstaking efforts to cook us the most delicious Viet foods.  Braised Fish in Clay Pot was her signature dish and one the whole family loved.  My Mom’s original recipe uses a homemade caramel sauce (nuoc mau).  She would make a big jar of it and have it ready for this dish.  If you’ve ever made caramel for braising meats, you’ll know that it can be tricky and it’s very easy to burn the sugar.  It’s all in the timing.  You want to get the caramel a rich amber color without scorching it.  (If you’ve ever burned sugar, you know it smells awful.)  Cooking caramel is an art and so many folks in my generation don’t bother making it.  Our local Asian grocery stores conveniently sell jars of caramel sauce ready for use.

My recipe adaptation is an homage to my mom’s homemade caramel recipe but you don’t need to make a big batch ahead of time like she use to do.  Instead, you make just enough caramel for the dish so it’s easier to time.  You still need to keep your eyes on it.  Once the sugar melts and turns a honey color, it can burn in a matter of seconds.  If you’re more experienced with making caramel, you can cook at a higher temperature.  If you’re a novice, I suggest you keep the heat on low.  It takes a little bit longer but will give you more time to react.  Another trick I use is to add the minced scallions and garlic to cool the caramel instantly and to stop it from cooking further.

If you don’t have a clay pot, you can use a saucepan or skillet.  Just make sure your cookware is large enough so the pieces of fish lay flat.   This will ensure they are evenly coated in the delicious caramel sauce.  The success of this dish is how well the sauce permeates the fish.  I use tilapia, a tender fish that cooks fairly fast.  To help infuse the fish with the savory sauce, you need to spoon the sauce over the fish as it’s cooking.  Sorry, this is not one of those dish where you set it and forget it.  Although the total cooking time is not long, you need to be diligent with all of the steps.  I promise, you will be rewarded with a beautiful and mouth-watering dish.  Enjoy!

Watch the video below for instructions.

Ingredients

12 oz of tilapia fillets
1/2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 Tbsp sugar
1/2 Tbsp minced garlic
1 Tbsp minced shallots
3 red chilies

for the Marinade:

2 Tbsp water
2 Tbsp fish sauce
1 tsp sugar
1/8 tsp ground black pepper

Directions

Mix together all ingredients for the marinade and set aside.

Add oil and sugar to the pot.  Cook over Low heat stirring occassionally until sugar melts and turns a dark amber color, approximately 5-6 minutes.  Add minced shallots and garlic and combine with the caramel.  Cook for 1 minute.  Add the marinade prepared earlier and stir together.  Add the chilies.  Lay fish fish fillets flat inside the pot.  Add enough water to cover the fish and cook on Low heat for 5 minutes.

After 5 minutes, spoon the sauce over the fish several times coating it well.  Cook for another 3 minutes.  Turn up the heat to Medium High and cook until more than half of the liquid is evaporated, approximtely 3-5 minutes.  Continue spooning the sauce over the fish as it cooks.  (Note:  If you prefer more sauce for dipping cucumbers or to spoon over rice, adjust the cooking time and don’t let as much of the liquid evaporate.)

Transfer the pot to a cool burner.  Cover slightly and allow to cook for another 10 minutes.  (If using a steel pot, simply simmer for another 5-6 minutes.)

Sprinkle more ground black pepper on top and serve hot.

Yields: 2-4 servings

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