Cá Kho Tộ Caramel Fish in Clay Pot – 189 of 365

The Raw Ingredients

Snakehead is a delicacy in Asia.  What image is dancing around in your mind right now?  Villagers waving dead cobras on a stick?  It’s actually much less benign than that.  I had never before heard of this fish until moving here.  And having only seeing it listed as “snake head” on menus, of course I thought it was head of a snake rather a slimy black fish.

A recent show on the National Geographic Channel (yes, we get real TV here) extolled the evils of this fish they referred to as snakezilla.  In fact, this species is banned in the US which causes me to ask myself now just what the heck am I eating over here?

Our TV narrator emphatically explained how fishzilla is environmentally destructive and just an absolute menace to humanity, and now I am on edge thinking the world is on the brink for his tone was so dire!  I watched with bated breath as hidden cameras and cops followed a planeload of black market snakeheads from airplane cargo at LAX airport to a Korean market.  As they say over here, Choi oi!!  Holy crap indeed.

Caramel Fish

Obviously I’ve been unwittingly eating fishzilla one after the other with open chopsticks and never before had I seen the actual ugly black fish with its pointy razor sharp teeth.   Oh well, it does taste good, but I admit not knowing enough about the various fish species to recognize fishzilla in a restaurant over any other of our finned friends.

Recently I joined my friends Melissa and Sarah along with Sarah’s visiting mother for a class at the Saigon Cooking Center.  Well what do you know.  Guess who else joined us for lunch?  Yep, you guessed it.  Mr. Snakehead himself.  This was before I watched that timely episode on NatGeo though.

Our lesson included the preparation of cá kho tộ, caramel fish in clay pot, which is a truly delicious way to savor some fishzilla.  Heat retained by the cooking vessel causes the fish to cook quickly as the ingredients bubble up into a nice sweet, sour, spicy, salty syrup.  The mild sweetness of the snakehead pairs so well with the stronger spices, and now I have a hard time digesting just how such a great tasting fish can be such an environmental menace in America.  Not that I condone it, but I can understand why a black market for this species exists back home.

Obviously any type of white fish can be used for the recipe that follows.   Since clay cooking pots do not dot the culinary landscape back home, of course a small nonstick skillet works in a pinch.

Cá Kho Tộ


100g (4 ounces) fish fillet, 1 cm (half an inch) thickness

1 teaspoon chopped shallot

1 teaspoon chopped green onion (white part)

1 hot chile

1 tablespoon fish sauce

½ teaspoon chicken powder

2 teaspoons sugar

½ teaspoon ground black pepper

One cup water

½ tablespoon cooking oil

1-2 teaspoons of caramel syrup (not the kind for an ice cream sundae!!  This kind is caramelized sugar)

1 tablespoon chopped green onion for garnish (green part)


For the caramel syrup:  heat 1 tablespoon of cooking oil and 1 tablespoon of sugar in a pan.  Stir until golden brown.  Remove from heat.

Marinade:  in clay pot (or small skillet) marinate fish with 1 tablespoon fish sauce, ½ tablespoon sugar, ½ tablespoon cooking oil, ½ teaspoon of chicken powder, ½ teaspoon of pepper, 1 teaspoon of spring onion, 1 teaspoon of shallot, chili pepper to taste, and the caramel syrup.  Let sit for 30 minutes, flipping occasionally.

After marinating period is finished, place clay pot over medium heat.

Stir occasionally until the sauce is dried up and then add water to the pot.

Simmer until the water is reduced by half or until the fish is cooked.

Garnish with green onions and ground pepper.

Serve with steamed rice and vegetables.

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Categories: Vietnamese Food

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