Lunch #189 was a delicious clay pot fish made with my very own two hands at cooking school. Remember that one with the snakehead fish also known as fishzilla? Cá kho tộ braised in these pots has become one of my favorite seafood dishes in Saigon, and what better way to see how the seasoned veterans of local food cook it up than by taking it to the streets. And no…caramel fish in a clay pot is not a filet of fish shoved down into some red flower pot looking thing and drenched in goopy brown syrup meant for an ice cream sundae.
Like so many in this parade of Vietnamese dishes translated into English, this one is just the proud owner of a most unfortunate name. Caramel actually refers to the crystallization of sugar during the cooking process rather than the candy. And this commonly used snakehead fish is usually just listed as “snake head” on a menu with no reference to fish. If I am any indication, mainstream eaters might think it is the actual head of a snake until they learn otherwise. I wonder how many westerners steer away as I did for the longest time. After all I have seen actual snake heads festering in the mid-day sun in a mobile food cart down in Saigon’s Chinatown so why would I have assumed any different with this one?
Many days Com 31 at the corner of Ly Tu Trong and Hai Ba Trung in District 1 has rows of tiny clay pots simmering over hot coals right where people maneuver through a narrow passageway into this open front restaurant. I love the authenticity of it all but shudder to think of the aftermath in America were this same scene duplicated at an Applebee’s. Grandma Mavis would knock over the display with her walker and burn little Billy and then the rest would be pop culture history like our friend who sued McDonalds for the hot coffee. But I digress. Let’s eat…
We are here to see how the real deal out on the street compares to the cooking class creation. This clay pot fish was a bit drier than in class since I had plucked mine from the flame at the height of readiness at the instructor’s prodding. These simmer away until ordered and any tenderness of the fish was long ago boiled away. That’s not to say though caramel fish out on the street doesn’t taste good. Au contraire. The sticky glaze gives a nice hit of sweet and salt and the chopped chili peppers deliver that requisite slow burn. I scraped the remaining sauce from the bowl and greedily spread it over the steamed rice.
Rather than cooking it on my own, I think I will stick to Com 31 for the experience of squatting on an ankle high stool barely able to support my western weight. And the price of admission can’t be beat. About a buck fifty buys the fish, soup, rice and a vegetable. Cooking at home can never deliver such delicious and authentic surroundings anyway.