When I lived in Milwaukee back in the 90s, there was this one restaurant that my wife and I hit when we wanted something “different”, something Asian but not Chinese. The restaurant was the West Bank Cafe, and it was a French-Vietnamese place that had one dish that I always ordered: Spicy Catfish in Clay Pot. The catfish was surrounded with a rich, slightly sweet, dark sauce, loaded with umami and a touch of heat. I could never get enough of this dish, nor could I ever get it out of my head.
Over the years, I’ve learned that this dish is a very common and traditional Vietnamese dish, and I’ve had it at a couple of places outside of Milwaukee, but I’ve never had any that was as good as the West Bank Cafe’s rendition. Until last night, that is. And I made it myself.
The secret to the dish is Nước Màu, which is a deep, dark caramel with a touch of citrus. The caramel is almost burnt, and it’s not something that you want to serve with ice cream. It has a slightly bitter taste on its own, but when used as a flavoring agent, it adds a richness to a dish that is truly unique.
You don’t have to make this in a clay pot, but it’s better that way, as the clay somehow creates a bit of crust on the catfish as it cooks. This is the first time I’ve cooked on a stove top with one of my pieces of pottery, and I’m sure the pot I used was not supposed to be used (abused?) in this manner, but it worked nonetheless. If you don’t have a nice clay pot, then use a sauce pan. No big deal.
I noticed that Harris Teeter has catfish nuggets on sale for 2 bucks a pound, so you can feed a family of 4 for about $6 using the recipe that I cannibalized from several sources. My rendition is probably not authentic, as I added wood ear mushrooms and baby bok choy, but my changes worked well with the dish.
But go ahead and make the Nước Màu and make this dish. From beginning to end, it only took me an hour, and boy, was this stuff good. No, it was great, and I’m glad I’ve re-discovered this classic Vietnamese dish.
CATFISH IN CLAY POT
- 1 tsp. black pepper
- 4 Tbsp. thinly sliced shallots
- 1-1/2 pounds catfish, cut into 3 inch pieces
- 6 Tbsp. fish sauce
- 4 Tbsp. sugar
- 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
- 4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 4 oz. wood ear mushrooms
- 2 heads baby bok choy, sliced
- 4 Tbsp. Caramel Sauce (Nước Màu) – recipe below
In a large bowl, stir together sugar, black pepper and fish sauce, and gently toss with shallots and catfish. Marinate for 20 minutes, tossing occasionally.
In a separate skillet over medium-low heat, add oil and garlic, cooking for 2-3 minutes. Do not brown the garlic. Add mushrooms, increase heat to medium, and cook for an additional 2 minutes. Remove from heat.
Warm a 1-2 quart clay pot on the stove over medium-low heat. If you do not have a clay pot, you may use a medium-large sauce pan. Add the garlic, mushrooms and oil into the clay pot. Add the marinated catfish to the clay pot. Pour and gently toss the caramel sauce with the catfish. Increase the heat to medium.
When the pot reaches a gentle boil, turn down the heat to low, cover and gently simmer for about 30 minutes. After 15 minutes of cooking, layer the bok choy on top of the fish and re-cover until cooking is complete.
Serve with rice or the grain of your choice.
NƯỚC MÀU – VIETNAMESE CARAMEL SAUCE
Makes about 1 cup
In a dry saucepan set on medium high heat, add 1 cup of sugar and 1/2 cup of water. Allow to boil. The mixture will begin to darken. When the mixture begins to turn amber, stir with a wooden spoon until it turns to a dark mahogany (yes, that’s pretty dark). At this point, remove the pan from the heat and carefully add another 1/2 cup of water to the pan. (Warning: this stuff will burn the hell out of you if you’re not careful. You need to be very careful here. When adding the water the caramel may seize but will eventually melt again).
Increase heat to high and cook for about 5-8 minutes until it is thick, smooth and very dark. Carefully add 1 Tbsp. of lime juice and remove from heat. Stir thoroughly, allow to cool slightly, and transfer it to a glass container. The sauce will look like dark molasses and will keep indefinitely at room temperature.
Recipes adapted from Holy Basil.