The Mekong Delta is all about rivers, streams, ponds and flooded rice paddies. It’s no wonder then, that fish plays a huge part in the lives of the people here.
A staple of any Vietnamese cook’s repertoire is “kho” (pronounced “khaw”) or stewed meat, most often in a caramel sauce with fish sauce for that addictive sweet and salty combination. (Full recipe at the end of the post.)
This recipe calls for Basa, a common freshwater catfish found all around Vietnam. Other types of firm white fish, such as monkfish or halibut, work equally well. The Vietnamese prefer catfish as it’s a fatty fish which keeps the flesh moist but still retaining its chunky texture during the braise.
Salt, pepper, shallots and Knorr seasoning powder are part of the marinade. Practically every Vietnamese homecook uses Knorr as a quick flavoring, however, if you prefer to leave it out, it won’t affect the taste too much.
Scallions or green onions. Separate and chop the green and white parts. Reserve. Also keep some of the stalks for a crunchy texture to the dish.
The caramel here uses palm sugar, garlic (in a bit of oil) and fish sauce. If you don’t have access to palm sugar, brown (or even white) sugar can be used.
Marinate the chunks of fish. Set aside.
In a pan, melt the palm sugar until it starts to bubble and take on a dark caramel color. It’ll start taking on notes of molasses or even coffee.
Add the fish.
Add a bit of water or coconut juice (not coconut milk), just enough to almost cover the fish.
Add pepper to taste and the chopped green scallions. Skim the scum off for a clear sauce.
Simmer over low heat until the liquid reduces to a thick sauce.
Line a clay pot with the scallion stalks. Unglazed clay pots can be found cheaply in any Vietnamese market and are popular for this dish because they can retain and distribute the heat evenly without cracking. Glazed pots will crack under high heat.
Add the rest of the fish mixture and continue cooking over medium heat for 15-20 minutes until the fish is cooked through. The sauce will reduce, becoming a beautiful golden brown and slightly sticky.
Garnish with the remainder of the chopped green scallions, a chili (optional) and a few sprigs of coriander. Serve with jasmine rice for a soul-satisfying meal. Some cooks will add bits of pork belly in the cooking process for additional flavor.
• 750g firm white fish, cleaned and cut into chunks
• 150g palm sugar
• 3 tbsp Vietnamese fish sauce
• 1 tsp Knorr seasoning powder
• 3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
• 5 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
• A bunch of spring onions, chopped (separate into white, green and stalks)
• 1 tbsp cooking oil
• 400ml coconut water (not milk) or water
• Chilies, coriander sprigs (optional, to garnish)
• Cooked jasmine rice
1. In a bowl, place fish chunks and marinate with palm sugar, fish sauce, chopped white scallions, salt, pepper, Knorr powder, shallots and garlic. Set aside.
2. To make the caramel sauce, place the remaining sugar in a saucepan with a splash of cooking oil and bring to a boil over a medium heat. Keep swirling it in the pan so that it doesn’t burn for about 10 minutes, or until you have deep brown and glossy caramel liquid.
3. Add the fish, adding water (or coconut juice) to just cover the fish and bring to a boil. Skim the scum off.
4. Add pepper and some of the chopped green scallion.
5. Prepare your clay pot (or other heavy-bottomed pot) by putting down a layer of the scallion stalks. Add the fish mixture and continue cooking over medium heat for 15-20 minutes until the fish is cooked through. The sauce will reduce, becoming a beautiful golden brown and slightly sticky.
6. Garnish with the remainder of the chopped green scallions, a chili (optional) and a few sprigs of coriander. Serve directly from the clay pot for a rustic presentation with jasmine rice.
Recipe and photos courtesy of the wonderfully scenic Spices Restaurant at Victoria Can Tho Resort, with both indoor and outdoor seating overlooking lush gardens and the Hau River beyond. The restaurant offers casual all-day dining featuring both European and Vietnamese cuisine, including caramelized fish in clay pot.