Fish Simmered in Vietnamese Caramel Sauce

Vietnamese caramel sauce has a bitter, slightly sweet flavor that when combined with garlic, black pepper and of course the ubiquitous fish sauce creates a layered marriage of flavors. Once you’ve made the caramel, the simmering sauce can be quickly put together to cook various proteins – mild-flavored firm-fleshed fish, shrimp or chicken.

Although in Andrea Nguyen’s original recipe catfish is cooked for an hour, I chose to use monkfish and cook it just until done. Monkfish, poor man’s lobster, has a hint of sweetness and doesn’t fall apart when simmered. Other variations of the recipe include using ginger together with or instead of the garlic. Serve with rice as a main dish.

Catfish Simmered in Caramel Sauce
Based on the recipe in Into the Vietnamese Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen

1 ½ lb. firm-fleshed fish (catfish, cod, monkfish, salmon, sea bass, etc.) cut into 2” chunks

2 t brown sugar
½ t black pepper
¼ t salt
2 T caramel sauce*
1½ T fish sauce

2 oz. pork fatback, cut into ½-inch dice (optional)
Vegetable oil for pan frying
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 large onion, cut in half and sliced

In a bowl large enough to hold the fish, combine the ingredients for the marinade, add the fish and let sit for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat a sauce pan, just large enough to cook the fish, over medium heat. Add the pork fatback and stir-fry for about 10-12 minutes until the cubes are golden and the fat has rendered from the pork. Remove the resulting cracklings to a plate lined with a paper towel. Keep about 1 tablespoon of the pork fat for frying or discard all of it and use vegetable oil. Reheat the fat or oil over medium heat and stir-fry the garlic for 30 seconds until fragrant. Add the onions and cook for about 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they start to brown and caramelize.

Add the fish and marinade to the caramelized onions and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cover and reduce heat to a low simmer. Let cook for about 10 minutes adding a splash of water midway if the sauce becomes too dry. Uncover and add 1 cup of water. Simmer uncovered for 5-10 to reduce the sauce and further develop the flavors. Correct the seasoning and serve over rice.

*Caramel Sauce

The trick to making caramel is to cook it over a high enough heat to caramelize the sugar before all the water evaporates, but not so hot that the sugar burns. You want a gradual deepening of color over about 20 minutes.

Recipe makes about ¾ cup finished sauce

¾ cup sugar
1 cup water (1/4 cup to make the caramel and ¾ cup to thin it)
Sink or bowl with 2 inches of cold water to stop the cooking process

In a small heavy sauce pan, preferably light colored to more easily monitor the changing color of the sugar, heat the sugar and ¼ cup of the water over medium low heat. To melt the sugar evenly, stir for the first two minutes only. Continue to simmer undisturbed. The sugar mixture will boil and then start to turn brown about 10 – 15 minutes into the process.

Watch the deepening of the color carefully. When the mixture is dark tea colored and starts to smoke, remove the pan from the heat and gently swirl it. The sugar will continue to darken. When it reaches a rich coffee color, set the pan in the cold water to stop the cooking process. Add the remaining ½ cup of water carefully as it will spatter. Return the pan to the stove and stir to dissolve the caramelized sugar into the water over medium heat.  Cool to room temperature before using. The unused portion can be stored in the pantry in a glass jar.