Vegetarian Fish in Nori Rolls (Ca Keo Chay)

Vegetarian Fish in Nori Rolls (Ca Keo Chay) Recipe

This dish is a vegetarian version of the Vietnamese dish called "cá kho tộ", which is braised fish simmered in caramel sauce. Instead of using cá kèo (a dark-scaled small fish that is very popular in Saigonese cuisine), I stuffed tofu in nori sheets to resemble the look and taste of seafood. Once wrapped, the nori rolls are simmered in a sauce made of coconut and soy sauce. Even though the real fish dish is cooked in a claypot to perfectly sear the fish, for the vegetarian equivalent I don’t think it’s necessary. I used a  regular  deep non-stick pan.

I served the vegetarian fish with thin vermicelli noodles and a banana blossom salad. The more authentic version calls for rau răm, which is a Vietnamese aromatic herb that is an acquired taste for those who are not familiar with it. My husband Lulu is not a big fan, so I garnished it with African basil from the garden. 

If you're planning to cook for vegetarians, this meal is perfect; the texture of firm tofu resembles fish without its strong aroma. If you like this recipe, you'll be happy to know that there are a lot of similar vegetarian equivalents to traditional Vietnamese dishes that have been developed for the Buddhist vegetarian diet. I'll post more recipes resembling seafood such as shrimp and other fish dishes soon.

Sorry for not posting yesterday'; our internet was down .


Yields: 8 servings

2 cups vegetarian ham (see tips), diced
1 drop red food coloring (optional)
2 teaspoons ginger paste, freshly grated
3 tablespoons cane sugar
½ teaspoon red chili powder, to taste
1 teaspoon mushroom seasoning salt (or regular salt)
1 teaspoon black pepper
6 ounces firm tofu (½ package)
3 tablespoons mung beans, cooked into a dry, thick paste
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 (0.7-ounce) package nori sheets (see tips)
1 (12-ounce) can coconut soda
2 tablespoons ketchup
2 tablespoons coconut cream
4 tablespoons dark soy sauce
3 tablespoons African basil (or rau răm)


Prepping the tofu: Cut the tofu into ½-inch slices. In a wok, heat the canola oil. Pan-fry the slices on both sides until golden. The tofu should have a nice fried outer crust and still be moist inside. Transfer the tofu onto paper towels. Sprinkle with salt. Allow to cool a little. As soon as the tofu is not too hot to handle, cut each slice crosswise into shreds.

Preparing the ground tofu paste: In a food processor, blend the fried tofu, mung beans and the vegetarian ham together. Add the red food coloring (if used). Mix well. Add red chili powder, 1 teaspoon ginger paste, 1 teaspoon sugar, 1 teaspoon oil and season with mushroom salt and pepper. It should turn into a thick paste. Set aside. 

Forming the nori rolls:

Cut each nori sheets into 4 3"-wide rectangles.

Using disposable gloves coated lightly with oil, form small cylinders using about 2 tablespoons of the tofu paste. Place the cylinders in the rectangles of nori and wrap them. I sealed the nori with oil but you could also use toothpicks.

Pan-frying the rolls:

In a non-stick pan, heat very little oil (about 1 teaspoon) and pan fry the rolls for 1-2 minutes. Transfer onto a platter.

For the caramel sauce:

In the same pan, add the rest of the sugar. 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 remaining ginger paste, ketchup, 2 tablespoons soy sauce and half of the can of coconut soda. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon until the liquid is absorbed. Add the coconut cream. Check seasoning (the saltiness from the soy sauce should be sufficient, so I didn't add more). Add black pepper. 

Assembly time:

Add the nori rolls to the caramel. Add the remaining coconut soda and soy sauce, just enough to barely cover the rolls. Bring to a gentle boil, then lower to a gentle simmer for about 30 minutes. Keep stirring the bottom of the pan every now and then without touching the rolls so they don't fall apart.

Once the liquid evaporates and there's only a thick caramel-colored sauce at the bottom, the dish is ready.

Garnish with rau răm (I used African basil). Serve with vermicelli noodles and banana blossom salad.

Serve immediately.

Eat with chopsticks!


You can find all the ingredients listed in most Asian stores.

Coconut Soda Picture

I used coconut soda. You could also use Coke for a sweeter caramel sauce.

I buy vegetarian ham in the frozen section of Asian markets. The color and texture is very similar to meat.

For flavor reasons, our family prefers the (seaweed) nori sheets sold in small packages  as a snack but for this dish, I used (9" x 4-½") nori sheets; there are 5 sheets per package. Look for the Hong Hae Foods brand.

I use Thanh Son brand tofu. If you live in the Bay Area, you have to try it. It's sold in almost all the Asian markets in downtown San Jose, and their main shop is on 2857 Senter Road, San Jose. It's a very little shop but everything is very good. Their tofu has the best texture; it's made fresh daily. I also like Golden Gate brand tofu; just make sure to look for the firm version.

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. Make sure the bottle says nước tương chay, which means vegetarian in Vietnamese.

Rau răm is another Vietnamese aromatic herb that is an acquired taste for someone who's not familiar with it. My husband Lulu doesn't care for it. I would describe the flavor as spicy coriander, and it goes very well with chicken; I use it for cơm gà Hải Nam (Vietnamese chicken rice dish) and gơi (Vietnamese chicken salad). I recently bought a plant at my local nursery. It's called "Vietnamese coriander" at Summer Winds Nursery, 725 San Antonio Rd, Palo Alto, CA 94303.

Mushroom seasoning salt brings a very distinct, earthy flavor to the tofu filling. 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.

Published By: Jacqueline Pham on June 7, 2010.


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