Vietnamese Caramel Catfish (Ca Kho To)

Hello! In case you’re wondering, I have been participating in Opposite NaBloPoMo, which is where you try your very hardest to avoid blogging at all in November. At least, that’s what I’ll tell myself. I’ve been staying busy with teaching, organizing with other overpaid teachers getting involved with the Seattle Education Association, and, of course, chilling out with the other Hershman-Rossi in this household.

Vietnamese Clay Pot Catfish (Ca Kho To)

Shortly before Thanksgiving we were graced with a visit from Pamela. Although the whole weekend was filled with lots of eating and drinking, one of the highlights was dinner at Monsoon. We grossed out our hipster waiter by ordering too much food, laughed inappropriately loud in a small restaurant, and enjoyed some really great upscale Vietnamese food. I ordered the claypot catfish, which was so great that I just had to replicate it at home.

Vietnamese Clay Pot Catfish (Ca Kho To)

Vietnamese Clay Pot Catfish (Ca Kho To)

Internet to the rescue! Apparently “claypot catfish” is also known as “Ca Kho To” and is a pretty standard homestyle dish from southern Vietnam. The main ingredients are catfish (sustainable, inexpensive, and delicious), fish sauce (not that scary really), tons of black pepper, and some caramelized sugar. It’s incredibly easy and totally unexpected.


A note on ingredients: You will need fish sauce and coconut juice (not water!), both of which you can find at any Asian grocery and really any bigger grocery store. If you can find it, get some “caramel cooking sauce”, which is just premade burnt sugar. If you can’t find it, you can make your own easily – don’t worry! In Seattle, Viet Wah is my jam now that we live in Capitol Hill, and of course I’ve waxed poetic about HT Mart here before.

Vietnamese Caramel Catfish

serves 4 with a vegetable side dish or salad
adapted from The Ravenous Couple


  • 1 lb. catfish steaks (preferred) or thick fillets
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup fish sauce, plus more if needed
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons Vietnamese caramel cooking sauce (or make your own by combining two tablespoons of sugar and 1/4 cup of water in a small saucepan, and boiling until it reduces to a dark brown, about 7-8 minutes)
  • about 1/4 cup sliced shallots, and/or 1/2 cup sliced onions
  • a 1″ knob of ginger, peeled, thinly sliced into discs, and then cut into matchsticks
  • 1 tablespoon fresh ground black pepper (about 25 grinds on my crappy Trader Joe’s pepper mill)
  • 1 12-oz can coconut juice (not coconut milk)
  • 5-6 small dried chiles (like chiles de arbol) or one whole serrano or Thai chile
  • 1 bunch scallions, sliced into 1″ chunks
  • juice of 1/2 lime, plus more wedges for serving


If using catfish fillets, cut them into two or three large pieces that will fit snugly in a small frying pan or saucepan (or, if you have it, a heatproof clay pot).

Heat the vegetable oil over medium-high heat in a smallish pan that can be covered later. When it’s good and hot, about 1 or 2 minutes later, add the catfish in one layer. Cook for a few minutes until one side is nicely browned, then carefully turn. Add all the remaining ingredients except the scallions and lime and stir things around as well as you can (in my pan, I just had room to sort of tuck things in here and there – that’s fine). Make sure the catfish is at least 3/4 of the way covered – if it’s not, add a little water or more coconut juice.

Cover the pan and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook for 20-25 25 minutes, or until a thin, sharp knife slides effortlessly into the fish. Catfish is really hearty, so it will not get tough (even though you’re cooking the hell out of it).

After 25 minutes, check on the fish. It should be tender and the sauce should be reduced to a rich, caramelly glaze. If it’s too thin but the fish is done, remove the fish carefully and boil the sauce down for a few minutes. Add the lime juice and scallions and stir, cooking for another minute or two. Taste for seasoning – it may need a little more fish sauce (or some salt), or it may need more sugar.

Serve everyone a big scoop of rice and a hunk of fish with some of the sauce spooned over the top. Instruct your diners to avoid the chiles, unless you’re a terrible host.

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