One of the most ordered dishes at any Vietnamese restaurant menu is this caramelized catfish or “Ca Kho To.” We usually order this dish as part of our “dinner for two” option when dining in a Vietnamese restaurant. We don’t dine at Vietnamese restaurants often (other than Pho), but Ca Kho To is the go-to and must have when we do eat out.
Often referred to as caramelized fish in clay pot, Ca Kho To is a traditional Vietnamese comfort food. The fish usually cooked in a clay pot, braised with sizzled, caramelized sugar and covered in a fish sauce broth until thickens. The sauce is a mixture of sweet, savory, and spicy favors – it’s so good I can mix just the sauce with a bowl of hot rice for a fantastic meal. At most Vietnamese restaurants, this dish is accompanied by a hot and sour soup (or canh chua) and a plate of stir fry veggies.
What kind of fish to cook for this recipe?
The preferred fish is catfish filets or catfish steaks but I’ve used tilapias and basa filets when I’m on a tight budget. And they have turned out perfect as well.
Coconut soda vs coconut water
Some people use coconut soda for this recipe, and others use coconut water. I personally like to use coconut water because it has lower sugar. Coconut water is slightly sweet and adds the right amount of sweetness flavors to the fish in the braising process.
Everything about this caramelized fish – from the salty sauce and firm fish filets, to the spicy flavors of black peppers and chili peppers sounds incredible. And the texture of this dish is unbeatable.
This would totally make a great dinner when you crave for some comfort and cozy food. Served with a plate full of steamed veggies and comfort is right at home.
Vietnamese Caramelized CatFish
Catfish braised in a sweet, salty mixture of fish sauce and coconut water. This popular Vietnamese dish is rich and full of flavors. Perfect over rice and steam veggies.
For the fish seasonings:
- 1 lb catfish filet or catfish steaks
- 5 cloves garlic (minced)
- 1 small shallot (minced)
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon black or white pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon chicken powder
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce (more to taste)
- 1 1/2 cup coconut water
For the caramelized sauce:
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 tablespoons water
Wash fish in salt water and pat dry. Set aside. Once dry, place garlic powder, salt, fish sauce, chicken powder to marinate. Let sit for 15 minutes if time permits.
Heat oil over medium heat over a skillet. Once hot, add in garlic, shallot and fry until brown, about a minute. Carefully transfer the fish filets and sear on both sides until brown. Add in coconut water and turn the heat to medium low to braise.
While the fish is simmering, prepare the caramelized sauce. Place water and sugar in a separate small saucepan over medium heat. Gently swirl the pan until the sugar starts to bubbles and turn into a caramelize liquid. Quickly pour over the fish.
Continue to simmer the fish on medium low heat for 25-30 minutes until sauce thickens and the fish filets become firm and has nice caramelized color. Season to taste, add more fish sauce if you like it on the saltier side, or more sugar, if needed.
Sprinkles with black pepper and chilis to finish. Serve over rice and steam veggies.