Another recipe picked up in Vietnam, this Vietnamese Braised Fish is traditionally cooked in a claypot and called Cá Kho Tộ, the last two syllables, referring to a claypot. This dish is a personification of the sweet and salty flavour combination found in much of East Asia and is very quick and easily made at home, with or without a claypot.
It packs a punch, as we start off with making nước màu (caramel), then there’s lots of fish sauce, some sweet soy sauce and coconut water. All this is cooked right down for that rich, concentrated, caramelised taste this recipe is famous for! The thick, sweet and salty sauce doesn’t really need anything more than some plain white rice and lightly cooked greens. That’s not to say of course, that you cannot please yourself and make it part of a big Vietnamese or even a mixed East Asian meal with say some fried rice, some noodles and so on.
Catfish is the favourite for many when cooking this braised fish. I, however, much, much prefer salmon; you’d think that a dish this flavoursome would only need a bland meat but I think salmon takes on strong flavours so well and while it is perfect eaten simply, rises to another level given the slightest encouragement.
Claypot or no claypot? I’ve simplified matters here and gone for a heavy based pan, despite owning a few different sized claypots. I figured that many of my readers are not going to have one just sitting around waiting to be used. The intructions here are for cooking in a wide pan, a deep frying pan will do too. In fact, on a couple of occasions when I had this in Vietnam, it was only served in a warmed claypot, not cooked in it, much like tagines for many families, I guess.
I have also simplified the recipe a little, and we cook everything in one go, not the way I learnt it, which was to make the caramel separately and also marinate and brown the fish first.
Look for a gluten free soy sauce like tamari. There is no need to add any additional sugar, in my opinion to compensate for the sugar in the sweet soy sauce.
Unless you have access to fresh coconut water, shop bought, in a carton will do very nicely, but please make sure that it hasn’t got anything else apart from coconut water and perhaps 1% sugar, which I can’t seem to get away from.
Sweet Soy Sauce
Also known as Kicap Manis (Malay) or Ketjap Manis (Indonesian), is sweet and syrupy because of the large amount of sugar added to it during fermentation. If you don’t have access to this, just use the equivalent amount of dark soy sauce + a teaspoon of white or palm sugar. If you don’t have dark soy sauce, just omit and use the sugar. Yes, lots of sugar in this recipe! Both these soy sauces will be easily found at an Oriental shop.
- 4 salmon fillets
- 50g/quarter cup white sugar
- 65ml/quarter cup water
- 250ml/1 cup coconut water
- 3 tbsp fish sauce
- half tbsp sweet soy sauce
- 1 medium onion, halved and sliced
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 2.5cm/1in ginger, sliced in strips
- 2 spring onions, sliced into 1cm/half inch lengths, white and green separated
- 1 red chilli, sliced
- dash of ground white pepper
- Add the coconut water and the two soy sauces together and set aside.
- Let's start cooking with the caramel. Heat a large pan on high heat and add the sugar and water, swirling to mix the two.
- When it comes to boil, lower heat to medium and leave it to cook for about 5-7 minutes until it thickens and turns a golden colour (not brown).
- Place the salmon fillets on the caramel, increasing the heat slightly to medium high. Cook the salmon for about 2 minutes on each side to take on the colour of the caramel which will turn a brown colour at this stage.
- Pour the coconut water in, making sure not to pour directly onto the fish but rather between the fillets.
- Scatter the onions, garlic, ginger, white part of the spring onions and chilli all over, followed by the white pepper.
- Using a ladle, very gently agitate (stir a little) the liquid to mix thoroughly.
- When the liquid has come to a boil, reduce the heat right down and simmer for 10 minutes, uncovered, to cook the salmon.
- At the end of the cooking time, the liquid would have thickened considerably and you'll have a sweet and thick caramelised sauce. In the last minute of cooking time, gently spoon some of this sauce over the fillets to colour the top. You could of course just flip (carefully) the fish over but I don't bother.
- Turn the heat off and scatter the green part of the spring onions all over and serve with some rice and vegetables, as described above.