Ca Kho (Braised Catfish in Vietnamese Fish Sauce)

Ca Kho (Braised Catfish in Vietnamese Fish Sauce) Recipe

Cá kho tộ ("braised fish" in Vietnamese) is delicious catfish simmered in a caramelized sauce with garlic, ginger, green onions, fish sauce and red chiles. What I love most about the dish is eating steamed jasmine rice with the sauce made with coconut soda.

I love seafood, but the vegetarians in my home aren't always happy with the aroma of fish wafting through the house. Braising fish in nước mắm gives a strong smell to this dish, so I don't make it very often, even though I love it.


Yields: 6 servings

3 pounds catfish steaks, 1-¼" thick
½ teaspoon red chili powder
3 tablespoons canola oil (or any neutral oil)
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1-½ tablespoons ginger garlic paste (see tips)
4 shallots, finely chopped
2/3 cup sugar
2 cans coconut soda (or water)
1 cup water
2 teaspoons chili garlic sauce
6 red Thai bird chiles
2/3 cup cane sugar
1/3 cup dark soy sauce
2 green onions, sliced on the bias (about 4" long)
1 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
3 tablespoons nước mắm (fish sauce), to taste
6 sprigs cilantro, for garnish


Prepping the catfish: Make sure the fish steaks still have the skin on. Pat dry using paper towels. Add a teaspoon of garlic and season with salt and cayenne powder. Plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator overnight (or at least 2-3 hours).

Prepping the chiles: Using a paring knife, create a 1-½" incision in the red Thai bird chiles. Remove some of the seeds to make the dish slightly less spicy. Set aside. Note: remember not to rub your eyes after touching chile pepper seeds.

Searing the fish:

Use a heavy-bottomed pan with its matching lid. Add 1 tablespoon of canola oil. Once the oil is hot, add the shallots. Cook the shallots for about 6-8 minutes until soft and nicely golden. Leaving as much oil as possible in the pan, transfer to a platter. Set aside.

Pat the catfish dry one more time. Using a brush, lightly coat the catfish steaks with oil as well. In the same pan, add the rest of the garlic and cook until fragrant for 1-2 minutes. Once the oil is hot, place the catfish steaks. Pan-sear for a minute; and flip the catfish and sear the other side for an additional minute. Transfer the fish to a platter. Set aside.

Making caramel: In the pan, dissolve the sugar with about ¼ cup of water over high heat. It's important to carefully watch the sugar; as soon as the edges of the pan start caramelizing (about 5 minutes), immediately lower the heat to medium-low. Gently jiggle the pan in circles. Don't let the sugar get dark brown or you'll get a burnt taste. When all the sugar is an amber color, remove from the heat, pause for about a minute (be careful of splattering when liquid is added), then slowly add the soy sauce. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon.

Braising the fish:

Add the catfish steaks to the caramel. Add the shallots, red chiles, coconut soda, chili garlic sauce and green onions. Add water, just enough to barely cover the fish. Bring to a boil, then lower to a gentle simmer for about 45 minutes-1 hour. Keep stirring every now and then (delicately flipping the fish steaks occasionally and adding more liquid if necessary).

Once the water evaporates, check the doneness of the fish (add another ½ cup of water and cook a bit longer if not fully cooked). The caramel-colored gravy should be thick. Season with nước mắm fish sauce and black pepper. Cook for an additional 5-10 minutes over low-heat. Transfer to a serving bowl.

Remove and discard the strings of green onions (if you want).

Garnish with sprigs of cilantro or parsley. Serve with jasmine rice. 

Eat with chopsticks!

Vietnamese Braised Fish in Caramel Sauce Recipe with Picture


One day, I was running out of coconut soda (you can find it in Asian stores), so I used Coke instead. It's probably not very authentic but it tasted as good. I did lower the amount of sugar, though.

Coconut Soda Picture

I use ginger garlic paste a lot in my cooking. It tastes great and is very healthy for you as well. Just clean the ginger, carefully removing any dirt. Peel the ginger root with a paring knife or the edge of a spoon, then finely chop it. Place the chopped ginger and 5 cloves of garlic in a blender and, add about 2 tablespoons (or more) of water for a smooth flow. Transfer to a jar and store in the refrigerator. You can keep this paste for at least a week in the refrigerator.

You can use store-bought chili garlic sauce, like the one from Lee Kum Kee. It's just that my husband grew habanero and Thai chiles during the summer and we got a whole box full this year. I always make batches of chili garlic sauce. It's called tướng ớt (click on link for the recipe), literally "spicy dipping sauce" in Vietnamese; it's ultra easy.

My favorite soy sauce is the Da Bo De brand. It has a very nice flavor and is not too salty. You can find this particular sauce at, for example, Dai Thanh Asian market on 420 S 2nd St, in San Jose. I use soy sauce first then finish the dish with real fish sauce. I prefer braising the fish this way but you could use only fish sauce if you prefer strong flavors.

If the fish isn't salty enough to your taste, you could add nước mắm dipping sauce.

Check out my all time favorite seafood dish, Vietnamese-style tamarind crab (cua rang me). Just thinking about it makes me drool... is that bad?

Published By: Jacqueline Pham on March 29, 2010.


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