Forget everything you have ever learned about flash cooking fish. In this southern Vietnamese “kho,” or traditional, homey braising recipe from Vietnamese scholar and author, Andrea Nguyen, catfish steaks are bubbled for an hour in a caramel sauce, resulting in deliciously dense pieces of fish cloaked in a sticky mahogany sauce.
To eat, combine a little piece of the fish, some rice, and a bit of sauce in each bite. Andrea is a masterful recipe writer; her recipe appears here untouched.
Caramel Sauce is a cornerstone of Vietnamese cooking. Its ability to impart incredibly savory-sweet flavors is the key to simmering meats, seafood, eggs, and/or tofu for everyday kho dishes. The inky sauce also lends rich brown color to grilled meats, much as molasses does in American barbecue.
Cook to Cook: If possible, buy a whole fresh catfish (about three pounds cleaned weight) at a Chinese, Southeast Asian, or Latin market and ask the fishmonger to cut it into one-inch-thick steaks. If that is not possible, frozen catfish can be used.
Best prepared a day or two before and gently reheated when ready to serve.
2. Select a shallow saucepan in which the fish steaks will fit snugly in a single layer. If you are using the fatback, put it into the saucepan and cook over medium heat for about 12 minutes, or until it renders liquid fat and turns into golden cracklings; lower the heat slightly if the pan smokes too much. Pour out all but 1 tablespoon of the fat, keeping the cracklings in the pan; return the pan to medium heat. (If you are using oil, heat it in the saucepan over medium heat.) Add the garlic and scallions and sautÃ© for about 30 seconds, or until fragrant.
3. Add the catfish and all the seasonings from the plate to the pan. There may be some intense bubbling. Adjust the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook for 10 minutes to develop the flavors, checking midway to make sure there is enough liquid in the pan. If the pan seems dry, splash in a little water. During this initial period, the fish will more or less cook in the steam trapped in the pan. Expect the liquid to bubble vigorously. Soft plumes of steam may shoot from under the lid.
4. Uncover, add water to almost cover the fish, and bring to a gentle simmer. Cover and cook for 30 minutes. The fish will be at a hard simmer. Uncover and adjust the heat, if necessary, to continue at a gentle simmer. Cook for another 15 to 18 minutes, or until the liquid has reduced by half and has thickened slightly, forming a sauce.
5. Taste the sauce and adjust the flavor with a pinch of brown sugar to remove any harsh edges, or a sprinkling of fish sauce for more savory depth. Carefully transfer the fish to a shallow bowl. Don’t worry if the steaks break up a bit. Pour the sauce over the fish and serve with simple white rice.
To make the Caramel Sauce:
1. Select a small, heavy saucepan with a long handle. Use one with a light interior (such as stainless steel) to make monitoring the changing color of the caramel easier. Fill the sink with enough water to come halfway up the sides of the saucepan.
2. Put one quarter cup of the water and all the sugar in the saucepan and place over medium-low heat. To ensure that the sugar melts evenly, stir with a metal spoon. After about 2 minutes, when the sugar is relatively smooth and opaque, stop stirring and let the mixture cook undisturbed. Small bubbles will form at the edge of the pan and gradually grow larger and move toward the center. A good 7 minutes into cooking, bubbles will cover the entire surface and the mixture will be at a vigorous simmer. As the sugar melts, the mixture will go from opaque to clear.
If a little sugar crystallizes on the sides of the pan, don’t worry. After about 15 minutes, the sugar will begin to caramelize and deepen in color. You will see a progression from champagne yellow to light tea to dark tea. When smoke starts rising, around the 20-minute mark, remove the pan from the heat and slowly swirl it. Watch the sugar closely as it will turn darker by the second; a reddish cast will set in (think the color of a big, bold red wine) as the bubbles become a lovely burnt orange. Pay attention to the color of the caramel underneath the bubbles. When the caramel is the color of black coffee or molasses, place the pan in the sink to stop the cooking. The hot pan bottom will sizzle on contact. Add the remaining one half cup water; don’t worry, the sugar will seize up but later dissolve. After the dramatic bubble reaction ceases, return the pan to the stove over medium heat.
3. Heat the caramel, stirring until it dissolves into the water. Remove from the heat and let cool for 10 minutes before pouring into a small heatproof glass jar. Set aside to cool completely. The result will seem slightly viscous, while the flavor will be bittersweet. Cover and store the sauce indefinitely in your kitchen cupboard.
Recipe from Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors by Andrea Nquyen (Ten Speed Press, 2006. Recipe reprinted with permission.
As reprinted in The Splendid Table's How to East Weekends: New Recipes, Stories, and Opinions from Public Radio's Award-Winning Food Show (Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2011). Copyright 2011 by American Public Media.
Darra Goldstein is editor in chief of The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, an 888-page reference guide to all things sweet. "The book is really a compendium of human desires, a cultural history of desire for things that are sweet and what it has caused in the world, in both the realm of pleasure and also of pain," she says.