FACT: no one makes braised or caramelized fish as well as my Ba Ngoai (Grandma). You can argue all you want, but save your breath, she wins, always. Also fact, she won’t give me the recipe. Every time I’ve asked, she would reply with something like, “It’s very simple. You just need to add the fish, let simmer for a while, add a couple seasonings and that’s it.” Now, whenever you hear a grandma say something along these lines it usually means her recipe includes 40 steps, 500 ingredients, requires 7 days to complete and is infused with 28 different potions plus some dark magic. It’s her secret and that is that!
Growing up, this dish was a staple and the epitome of comfort. There’s something about the sweet caramel flavor that blends so harmoniously with the savory fish sauce and the catfish’s fattiness. This dish served over rice on a dark cloudy day is one of my fondest childhood memories. Once we finished the fish, my Grandma would always mix some rice into the empty pan and eat it with me. This saucy, caramel-y rice is still a favorite of mine.
Below is my rendition of her recipe after almost 2 decades of eating it. The most common way of making this is with catfish, though I’ve tried it with tilapia and it tasted just as good.
I eventually gave up nagging her about giving up her recipe because I know, she’s just holding it hostage to make sure I visit often. Silly Grandma, I’ve figured this recipe out years ago…. but I’m still going to ask you for it this weekend.
makes enough for 4-6 people
2 pounds catfish or tilapia, cut about 1 inch thick
¼ cup coconut water
A pinch of freshly ground black pepper
1 cup caramel sauce
4 thai chilies, halved (or 1 jalapeno, sliced)
2-3 cloves shallot, sliced
1 thumb ginger, julienned
The caramel sauce:
1 cup of brown palm sugar
3 tbsp water
¼ cup fish sauce
The caramel sauce:
You will need to make the caramel sauce first. This is the most complex (partially scary) part of the recipe since it can go from gorgeous caramel to a fish sauce volcano in 30 seconds. So, I urge you to give it your full attention.
Fill the sink or a big enough bowl with cold water that can come up to ¼ the height of the saucepan.
In a tall sauce pan over medium heat, add 1 cup of brown palm sugar and 3 tbsp water. Stir well for 1-2 minutes to fully dissolve the water .
Let sit and stir frequently through the next few steps.
Watch as the sauce bubbles and come to a gentle rolling boil.
The sauce will start changing color; starting from light yellow and gradually turning into a dark brown color with reddish tint (like how caramel looks). This should take about 8-10 minutes.
Once the sauce has reached the desirable color and consistency, remove from the heat and submerge the pan into the cold water in the sink (or bowl). This will seize the cooking process, preventing the caramel from burning.
Right away, add the fish sauce and stir until fully incorporated.
Now, I shall warn you that this will result in the sauce bubbling vigorously, hence the need for the large/tall saucepan.
In the event that your sugar cooled too fast and can’t fully dissolve in the fish sauce, return the saucepan to the stove and stir on low heat.
Allow the sauce to rest for 10 minutes, it will thicken as it cools down.
In a large bowl, mix together the fish, pepper and caramel sauce. Make sure the caramel sauce fully coats the outside of the fish.
In a small pot (claypot if you have one handy) place the fish snugly in one layer. Pour any remaining sauce over the fish.
Add the shallot, ginger and chilis. I made sure to wedge them in the open spaces so the flavor can infuse well with the fish.
Add the coconut water.
Cover and bring to a boil over medium high heat.
Reduce the heat so the pot is at a simmer and cook for 5-6 minutes.
Flip the fish pieces. Spoon some of the liquid from the pot over the fish to make sure it coats them thoroughly.
Cook for another 5-6 minutes until done.
Serve hot over white rice.
Good to know
Use a tall sauce pan to make the caramel. The sugar will boil quickly and can overflow if you’re not paying attention so the taller type of saucepan will be more forgiving.
If you don’t have or can’t find palm sugar, white sugar will suffice. I personally like palm sugar because that’s the way my Grandma made it and well, Grandma always knows best.
Again, I highly recommend using only catfish or tilapia to yield the best result. These types of fish have a “fall apart” texture that works best when coated with the sauce. Listen to me. Put the salmon away.