Other than Southerners, no culture loves catfish more than the Vietnamese. There are tons of Vietnamese catfish recipes, but this one, claypot catfish, may be the most famous.
And while it’s 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 Asian caramel sauce, but it’s hard to find and a pain to make. So I used molasses instead, and it was really, really good.
Authentic? Maybe not, but hey, it was easy and good.
What sort of catfish to use? Well, catfish can be muddy tasting, especially bullheads, 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, as are saltwater gafftopsail cats.
That’s not to say that bullheads are inedible. Just get them from clean water. You can also use any other fish you’d like in this recipe.
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.
If this freaks you out, remove the skin. I won’t hate you for it.
The flavor? Meaty, sweet, salty, a little spicy, with a sauce that screams to be spread over steamed rice.
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, which really makes a difference in flavor; you can use oil if you must. Serve this with plain white rice and a beer.
- 2 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
- Mix the brown sugar, black pepper, molasses and fish sauce and coat the fish in it. Let this stand for 15-30 minutes.
- 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.
- Add the catfish and all the marinade. Mix well, turn the heat down to medium-low, cover and simmer for 10 minutes.
- 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.
- Turn out the fish into a bowl, and serve with white rice. Have a bowl on the table for everyone's fish bones.