Food & dining

Recipe for Vietnamese clay pot catfish

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Serves 4

The clay vessel in which the caramelized catfish cooks gives this dish its name, but you can use any pot large enough to fit all the fish in a single layer. Called ca kho to, the dish is typically eaten after a few days to allow flavors to develop. “Unfortunately, I don’t have the patience to wait two or three days,” explains author Andrew Pham, whose shortcut involves cooling the fish to room temperature, then reheating it at serving time. The fish contracts as it cools, then expands in the hot sauce. If you have time, refrigerate overnight and the next day add a bit of water and bring to a simmer before serving.

6tablespoons palm sugar or brown sugar, or more to taste
½cup tap water
1whole bone-in catfish
(2 pounds), cut into 1-inch thick sections
6tablespoons Asian fish sauce, or more to taste
3cups pure unsweetened
coconut water (or use tap water)
2Thai chilies, seeded and sliced crosswise into thin strips
2cloves garlic, finely chopped
Black pepper to taste
2scallions, chopped

1. In a large pot over low heat, combine the 6 tablespoons palm or brown sugar and 1/2 cup tap water. Cook, stirring often, until the sugar dissolves. When it comes to a boil, swirl the mixture around the bottom of the pot to keep it from burning. The syrup will gradually turn dark brown and should smell strongly of caramel as it thickens. Take care not to burn the sauce.

2. Add the fish pieces in a single layer. Add the fish sauce and enough of the coconut water or tap water to just cover the fish. Add the chilies, garlic, and black pepper. Reserve any extra coconut water for adjusting the sauce later. If necessary, add more tap water.


3. Bring to a gentle boil and cook for 3 minutes. Lower the heat and simmer for 1 to 1½ hours or until the sauce reduces to about ½ cup and has a syrupy consistency. Taste for seasoning and add more fish sauce or sugar, if you like.

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4. Remove from the heat, sprinkle with scallions, and serve with rice.

Adapted from Andrew Pham