Ca Nuc Kho (Traditional Vietnamese Whole Mackerel in Sugarcane Sauce)
Cá nục kho mía literally translates to "mackerel braised in sugarcane sauce". It's the fish traditionally served in a Vietnamese claypot. The dark caramel ginger sauce is made from galangal and sugarcane juice (nước mía in Vietnamese).
Mackerel is high in Omega 3 oils but can have a strong fishy flavor. There are several steps that can be taken to ensure this dish is absolutely delicious. First, when you're at the market, make sure the fish is fresh; fresh mackerel shouldn't smell fishy. Look for clear-eyed fish with bright, shiny scales. The second step is to clean the inside of the fish thoroughly in several water baths and let the fish rest in a vinegary solution for a few minutes. The last part is to use a lot of shallots and galangal, which has a sharper, more aromatic flavor than ginger. It's slightly more expensive than ginger but it's well worth it.
Yields: 6 servings2-½ pounds whole small mackerel
2 tablespoons white vinegar
½ teaspoon red chili powder
1 clove garlic, finely minced
6 shallots, finely chopped
3 tablespoons canola oil (or any neutral oil)
1-½ tablespoons ginger garlic paste (click on the link for the recipe)
3 cups fresh sugarcane juice
2-½ tablespoons freshly grated palm sugar
1 (5-inch) chunk fresh galangal
3/4 teaspoon mushroom seasoning salt (or regular salt)
5 tablespoons nước mắm (fish sauce), to taste
1 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
8 sprigs cilantro, for garnish
Prepping the galangal: Clean the chunk of galangal and remove any dirt. Peel the galangal root with the edge of a spoon, then slice it. Set aside.
Prepping the mackerel: Make sure the fish still have the skin on. Trim and discard the heads. Carefully pick out all bones (pin and belly) using tweezers. Clean the inside of the fish thoroughly under running water. Place them in a deep dish. Barely cover with water and add vinegar. Mix well and let stand for about 5 minutes.
Discard and remove the water. Pat dry using paper towels. Sprinkle the inside with red chili powder.
Searing the fish:
Use a heavy-bottomed pan with its matching lid. Add 2 tablespoons 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 mackerel dry one more time. Using a brush, lightly coat the mackerel with oil as well. In the same pan, add the minced garlic and cook until golden. Add the ginger garlic paste and half the sliced galangal and cook until fragrant for 1-2 minutes. Place the whole mackerel. Pan-sear for a minute; flip the fish and sear the other side for an additional minute. Transfer the fish to a platter. Set aside.
Making caramel: In the pan, dissolve the palm sugar with about ¼ cup of sugarcane juice 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 fish sauce and the rest of the galangal. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon.
Braising the fish:
Add the mackerel to the caramel. Add the shallots and more sugarcane juice. Add water, just enough to barely cover the fish. Bring to a boil, then lower to a gentle simmer for about 15 minutes, depending on the size of the fish. Keep stirring every now and then (delicately flipping the fish occasionally and adding more sugar juice as it evaporates).
Check the doneness of the fish (add another ½ cup of juice and cook a bit longer if not fully cooked). The caramel-colored gravy should be thin. Season with mushroom seasoning salt and black pepper. Cook for an additional 10 minutes over low-heat. Check doneness; the tail should split and break very easily. Transfer to a serving platter.
Garnish with sprigs of cilantro. Serve with jasmine rice.
One of my aunts favorite ways of cooking mackerel is covering the fish with salted spicy lemongrass, called cá nục muối xả ớt. I'll post the recipe soon.
You can find freshly squeezed sugarcane juice in any Asian stores in San Jose, California. If you don't have any, you could use coconut soda.
When buying the fish, look for firm-fleshed fish. It shouldn’t bend when you hold it by its head; otherwise it means it isn't fresh.
If you can't find galangal, you could use the double amount of ginger. Galangal is whiter in color than regular ginger, but it's much more potent.
Mushroom seasoning salt brings a very distinct, earthy flavor to the caramel sauce. You can find it at gourmet specialty stores or in most Korean stores. I buy mine at Marina Foods -10122 Bandley Drive -Cupertino, CA 95014.
All the ingredients listed above can be found in any Asian stores.Published By: on May 20, 2010.