Vietnamese Catfish Braised in Clay Pot

Called "ca kho to," this is a common dish eaten in Vietnamese households. My mom rarely made it, because she said it always tasted too "fishy" when she did-- catfish wasn't always fresh at the grocery store. So she bought it prepared at Vietnamese delis or to-gos, and it was always a treat whenever we had it. 

Like most Vietnamese meat dishes, this catfish dish is eaten with a lot of white rice. A traditional meat dish that's eaten by itself is rare in Vietnamese cuisine. To stretch meat further, it is usually heavily spiced, making it a perfect accompaniment with filling rice or French bread. 

The catfish we used came from the 5-pounders we caught out of the Niobrara River. Some people think catfish are "fishy," but I don't think so at all. It depends on where you get them. Fish them out of clean, flowing water and they will taste fresh, meaty and clean. It's one of my favorite fish, up there with walleye for me.

Instead of filleting the fish, we sliced one of the catfish into steaks, with bone and skin intact. Just gut the catfish, and slice it crosswise into 1 to 1 1/2-inch steaks. You may need a cleaver or kitchen shears to cut through the spine. When braised, the catfish and its skin absorb the sweet and spicy sauce, which turns tender and delicious when cooked. It's amazing! 

If you don't have a clay pot, use a Dutch oven or a thick pan with a cover. Though, it's much more fun cooking in a clay pot. We got ours for 7 bucks at an Asian grocery store. 

Servings: 2
Prep Time: 30 minutes to 1 hour
Cooking Time: 45 minutes
- 1 pound of catfish steaks
- 4 tablespoons of fish sauce
- 3 tablespoons of brown sugar
- 1 inch of fresh ginger, sliced into matchsticks 
- 1 large shallot, minced
- 3 large cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon of cracked black pepper
- 3 tablespoons of caramel sauce (or 1/4 cup of water and 2 tablespoons of table sugar)
- 1 green onion, sliced
- 1 can of coconut juice/soda (Coco Rico Soda preferred)
- 1 thai chili (optional)
- 1 teaspoon of olive oil

- cooked jasmine white rice, for serving

1. In a medium-size bowl, combine fish sauce, brown sugar, garlic, shallot, ginger and black pepper. Add catfish steaks and marinate for 30 minutes to an hour in the refrigerator. 
If you can find caramel sauce in the Asian store, go ahead and use it. But we couldn't find any. 

2. To make caramel sauce, heat 1/4 cup of water and 2 tablespoons of sugar to a rolling simmer. Mix frequently and wait until it turns a dark brown-- do not burn. As it cools, it will harden up. To soften, add a little bit of water and slowly reheat. 
3. Heat olive oil in clay pot (or thick pan) over medium heat. Remove fish from marinade and sear for 2 minutes on each side in the oil. Sear in batches if pot is not big enough. 

4. Place all the seared fish back into the pot. Pour caramel sauce over the fish, then pour coconut juice to slightly halfway up the fish. Scoop out some of the ginger, garlic and shallot from the leftover marinade and add it to the pot, then discard the used marinade. 

Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes. Check to make sure sauce does not reduce too much, which will make it burn. Add more coconut juice if necessary. 

Courtesy of
We prefer to use this CoCo Rico Soda instead of coconut juice, but we can't always find it.
Adjust seasonings with more fish sauce or sugar. Garnish with sliced green onion and thai chili (optional).

Serve with lots of white rice.