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Vietnamese Claypot Catfish

vietnamese claypot catfish

Photo by Hank Shaw

While this Vietnamese classic is called claypot catfish, I confess I cooked it in a regular pot. The original dish, which I found in Andrea Nguyen’s Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, calls for a caramel sauce, but I didn’t feel like making it. So I used molasses instead, and it was really, really good. Authentic? Maybe not, but hey, I’m not Vietnamese…

Catfish can be, well, muddy tasting, especially bullheads and flathead catfish, which can live in really stagnant water. Channel catfish, which is the variety you can buy as farmed catfish, tends to be cleaner. Blue and white catfish are also of higher quality.

This recipe is for small cats, less than 18 inches long. You steak the cats without skinning them, which saves a lot of work, because while there is more than one way to skin a cat, all are a pain. You do have to flake the meat off the bones as you are eating it, but it comes right off. The skin helps thicken the sauce.

Vietnamese Claypot Catfish

You’ll need Asian fish sauce for this recipe, but it is easily available in large supermarkets, and, obviously, in Asian markets. In a pinch you can substitute Worcestershire, but it’s really not the same. I also call for lard. Please try to get it, as it really makes a difference in the flavor.

The finished dish is a wonderfully powerful hit of sweet-spicy-salty-savory. I can see why the claypot catfish is a classic in Vietnam.

Serve this with plain white rice and a beer.

Serves 4.

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Cook Time: 30 minutes

  • 2-3 pounds catfish steaks
  • 2 teaspoons brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons molasses
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 2 tablespoons lard
  • 3 garlic cloves, slivered
  • 3 scallions, cut into 1 inch lengths
  • 1-2 hot chiles, such as Thai or serrano


  1. Mix the brown sugar, black pepper, molasses and fish sauce and coat the fish in it. Let this stand for 15-30 minutes.
  2. In a pot just large enough to contain the fish, heat the lard over high heat and saute the garlic, chile and scallions for 1-2 minutes. Do not let them brown.
  3. Add the catfish and all the marinade. Mix well, turn the heat down to medium-low, cover and simmer for 10 minutes.
  4. Pour in enough water to almost cover the catfish, then turn the heat to medium-high. Cook this uncovered until the sauce reduces by half, about 10-15 minutes. Be sure to turn over the fish a couple times so both sides get coated by the sauce.
  5. Turn out the fish into a bowl, and serve with white rice. Have a bowl on the table for everyone’s fish bones.

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4 responses to “Vietnamese Claypot Catfish”

  1. Rolf

    DYANAMITE!!! The switch to molasses is a super tip. I always order #106 when we go to our favorite Pho restaurant. And now I have been able to almost duplicate it. I use a Lodge castiron pot as well as a traditional clay pot, I can make twice as much in the Lodge.

  2. Deb Zuraw

    OMG!!!!! When this recipe “popped up”, I focused on the 3rd paragraph: “this recipe is for small cats.” I was APPALLED!!!! I have since recovered and understand you are referring to catfish ….. but GEEZ!!!
    Recipe sounds great and I’m going to try it this weekend.
    Thank you!!!!

  3. erik

    I agree about the muddy taste to a point. i find the farm raised cats to be the muddy ones… never had a flathead or wild channel taste off at all… its all in the prep when you first catch your fish… dispatch them then hang from the jaw and cut the tail off about two inches from where the fins start let bleed and massage the fish from head to tail ( like you are holding onto a big rope/ or choking someone lol) pulling to the tail and then re griping at the head. works every time. if there is still a little mud taste you can brine while you clean a fish and then rinse…. i usually have a bucket with brine in it and as i fillet i throw the pieces in the brine then rinse and package the meat… give it a shot. prep is everything with any meat. catfish wild is 100 times tastier than the farm raised from the supermarket. love your site, have adopted a lot of ideas thanks for your time

  4. Shane

    An easy way to “dispatch” any fish
    Put a little whiskey, rum or your choice of spirits into a small squeeze bottle.
    As soon as the fish is caught, even while on the hook, give it a shot of spirits in the mouth or gills. This will immediaetly take the spirit (no pun intended) out of the fish, and all movement will cease. It works on large as well as small fish, but cautious when handling fish that can bite – like barracuda.

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