Cá Kho Tộ Recipe – Vietnamese Caramelized & Braised Catfish

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The tộ in cá kho tộ refers to the clay pot this dish is traditionally prepared in. I don’t have any spare clay pots on hand and I bet most of you aren’t going to have it either so we’re going to cheat a bit and make this in a good ol’ fashioned non-stick pan.

Mom’s old restaurant served cá kho in a clay pot, but she admitted to me it was actually cooked in a pan and just transferred into the pot. The cooks even heated up the clay pot to fool unsuspecting customers into believing it was the actual cooking vessel. Wow. (shh!)

This was a popular dish in southern Vietnam since meat and fish were plentiful. Obviously many types of fish were available there, but certain dishes tend to stick to certain varieties or be influenced by local availability.

What type of fish?

Cá lóc (snakehead fish) is commonly used in Vietnam because it’s cheap. Another popular and pricier option was cá trê. Both of these are only available in the freezer sections of Vietnamese markets. This frozen variety is not worth trying.

Instead, people here tend to avoid the ‘fishier’ options like mackarel and go for catfish:

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Its popular for its higher flesh content with less bones–a pretty American choice right? This braised catfish is eaten at any time of the day, year-round. A common practice is to use the filets from the center to make this braised fish recipe, and use the heads and tails for canh chua (a sour soup full of veggies–recipe coming soon!).

My aunt actually came over today to make cá kho with tinfoil fish (cá he), in a pressure cooker, which I’ve never gotten the chance to experiment with. This fish is stronger smelling, so she balanced that by adding some tea(!).

Thoughts on Fish Sauce

On my older thit kho recipe (Vietnamese braised pork with eggs) I recommended using Three Crabs brand fish sauce, simply because that’s what my mom uses quite often. There really is a slew fish sauce brands to try though.

I need to experiment with more types for my own knowledge. However, Kyle Hildebrant and his friend did a blind taste test on his website, Our Daily Brine. It seems as if the better fish sauces were from Vietnam, and tended to have fewer ingredients, mainly fish, salt and water. The ones that didn’t taste as good coincidentally (or not?) contained a combination of hydrolysed vegetable protein, MSG, or caramel color.

Another consideration when choosing a fish sauce is your health. Some brands contain sodium benzoate, a common food preservative. The Center for Science in the Public Interest describes it as safe for most people except for “sensitive individuals.” Pair that with this substance causing an off taste in many brands is enough reason for me to avoid it when possible. Or at least venture into discovering better brands.

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How To Serve It

Ca kho is a very rich and salty dish, so it goes well with many veggies to balance it out. Serve this with sliced cucumbers, boiled vegetables, or even some pickled mustard greens (dua chua) despite the salt content.

If you ever cook recipes on Hungry Huy, I’d love to see pictures of it and to hear from you! Cheers!

Cá Kho Tộ Recipe - Vietnamese Caramelized & Braised Fish
 
Prep time
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Author:
Ingredients
  • 1 pound catfish filets (bone and skin optional)
  • salt to clean the fish
aromatics
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • ½ yellow onion, sliced
seasoning & cooking liquid
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1.5 tablespoons fish sauce
  • About ½ teaspoon thick soy sauce
  • ½ cup water & ½ cup coconut juice (OR 1 cup coconut soda)
  • 1 chile, sliced (to taste, optional)
garnish
  • 1 stalk chopped green onion (scallion)
  • 1 sliced red chile
Instructions
  1. Generously salt fish and rinse under water to clean it. Set aside to dry.
  2. Add oil to a pan and saute garlic over medium heat until lightly browned.
  3. Layer onion on top, then the fish, evenly spaced.
  4. Add the seasoning & cooking liquid (& optional chiles) and turn the heat to high until boiling. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning.
  5. Bring it to a simmer for ~20 minutes. Adjust seasoning if needed.
  6. Gently flip the filets of fish over and simmer for a final ~10 minutes with the lid partially covered.
  7. Stand there to watch it the final ~10 minutes to prevent it from burning! During this time you can continually spoon the sauce over the fish.
  8. Add green onion during last 2 minutes to wilt & top with sliced chiles to garnish if desired and serve.

Boiled Peanuts Recipe [Seasoned With Salt]

vietnamese boiled peanuts
Many Vietnamese people fled their home country after the Vietnam War and ended up in Louisiana. The Vietnamese were exposed to new, local foods resulting in some current mainstays of Vietnamese cuisine, such as Cajun crawfish boil, chicory in Vietnamese coffee and of course, boiled peanuts.

These are popularly boiled with just salt, or with Cajun spices, but in this recipe we’re going to keep it simple and only use salt.

Speaking of peanuts, check out the cutest peanut / my nephew here on our walk:

cute little nephew

This was yet another hot summer day in Los Angeles. We took our time walking through the neighborhood and some restaurants, leaving footprints on the mattress store’s window (sorry!) and ended up in a bird store.

There were some beautiful birds there that the little dude just stared at the entire time in silence. The shopkeeper warned us to be careful to not get too close to avoid getting bitten. “You’d get in big trouble with the wife if that happened!” I laughed it off, “Yeah, if only I had a wife.” She scrambled for a reply, “Oh, or your husband.”

o_O. I think I get this way too often.

Anyways let’s boil some peanuts!

Start with raw peanuts that are not dehydrated. Rinse these fellas well since they have lots of dirt on ‘em. There’s nothing worse than feeling dirt or sand between your teeth!

Then all you have to do is boil the peanuts in salted water until it reaches a consistency you like. I like it to be soft, but not mushy–it should have some bite. Young peanuts taste better and cook faster, so I would just boil it for an hour, then check doneness by eating a peanut every 20-30 minutes until done.

animation of washing peanuts

There are other Asian and African variations on boiled peanuts that use spices, but I am completely happy with these. Maybe some other day! As if taste wasn’t enough for you, you can happily snack knowing boiled peanuts have 2-4 times more antioxidants than raw or roasted versions.

If you want to feel really Vietnamese, kick this up a notch by pairing these with some Heineken on ice.

Much like watermelon seeds, sunflower seeds, Pirate’s Booty or Cheetos (mmm, Cheetos)… this is a snack I could just eat nonstop. What kinda snacks are you addicted to?

vietnamese boiled peanuts, yum!

Boiled Peanuts
 
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Ingredients
  • 2 pounds raw peanuts, not the dehydrated type
  • 2 ounces of salt
  • 2 gallons of water
Instructions
  1. Soak peanuts in water for 15 minutes to loosen dirt, rinse and drain
  2. Add peanuts and salt to boiling water
  3. Keep a low-medium boil for 1 hour, checking for doneness every 20-30 minutes. It should have some bite and be soft, but not mushy. It can take 1-4 hours depending on age of the peanuts.

 

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