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When Weird Meets Mouth

May 20, 2010

I had a very interesting culinary experience last night, so bizarre that even now, more than 12 hours removed from the meal, I’m still not sure how much I liked what I ate.  The flavor combination was so foreign, so opposite from what many Westerners would be accustomed to.  I tried another recipe from that Vietnamese cookbook I came across, “Authentic Vietnamese Cooking” – it’s a dish that is apparently very authentic and well-known in Vietnam, but its very name will make you furrow your brow in mild confusion.  Ca Kho To is the name, which translates to “fish in caramel sauce.”  Yup, caramel and fish…like peanut butter and chocolate, right?  I definitely did not dislike the dish – but as I said, I’m still trying to decide if I liked it.  One sure-fire gauge would be to know if I would make it again…and I don’t know yet.  The flavors are good; it’s just a strange combination.  The sweetness of the caramel is not overpowering, and the savory qualities of the garlic and chili pepper match well.  The texture is probably the strangest part.  The original recipe calls for mackerel or eel – a “fatty” fish works best, as the fat will meld with the caramel during the cooking process, creating a velvety texture.  With eel and mackerel not being readily available, my fish monger (i.e., the guy at the seafood counter in the supermarket) recommended catfish, due to its high oil content.  It turns out his suggestion was spot on, as the texture of the fish did turn quite velvety.  So the final product is sweet, savory and velvety, topped with fried crunchy strips of ginger and served with rice.  Here is the recipe – try it if you dare and let me know what you think!

Fish in Caramel Sauce

(serves 4)

1 ½ lbs. fish filets – catfish, mackerel (ask for a “fatty” fish)

3 tbsp. sugar

2 tbsp. water + 1/3 cup water

3 tbsp. fish sauce

1 tbsp. soy sauce

2 garlic cloves, crushed

2 serrano peppers, sliced

2 scallions, halved lengthwise then cut into 1-inch strips

2 tbsp. peanut or vegetable oil

3 oz. fresh ginger, peeled and julienned

Season the filets with salt and pepper and set aside.  Combine the sugar and 2 tbsp. water in a large pot, and heat over med-low, stirring occasionally until sugar turns golden and caramel thickens, about 10 minutes (my caramel did not turn golden, but it did thicken).  Remove from heat, stir in the 1/3 cup water, fish sauce and soy sauce.  Return pot to low heat, add the garlic, peppers, scallions and fish.  Cover and cook until fish flakes easily with a fork, about 20 minutes.  While fish cooks, heat the oil in a pan on high heat.  Fry the ginger strips until golden and crunchy, about 2-3 minutes.  Plate the fish, spoon some of the braising liquid over the top, sprinkle ginger on the fish and serve with rice.  Eat!

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