Sunday, November 24, 2013

Ca Kho (Braised Fish)--Sieu Hui's way (serves 6 as part of a multi-course shared meal)

ca kho or Vietnamese braised fish
My cousin, Siếu Hủi is an excellent cook. I had no idea she could cook since I do not see her often except for the few visits back to Vietnam. However, I am not at all surprised. She now cooks the food at her family-owned restaurant, Minh Châu in Ngã Ba An Trạch (a few miles from Sóc Trăng--one of the larger cities in the Mekong Delta). When I visited she made this delicious classic Vietnamese braised fish dish known as cá kho. She used a fish called Basa, a type of fish that is popular in this region of Vietnam. However, you can use any type of firm fish. Catfish or salmon would work well in this dish. It is best to keep the bone on the fish for a better taste and to keep the meat whole and together during the cooking process. Fillets tend to make the fish too dry, broken into pieces and not so tasty.

After we fled Vietnam in 1979 by boat we lived on several small islands in Indonesia before we were finally settled in a refugee camp on Galang for nearly a year. Initially, we were rescued by an American ship and pulled to safety to find shelter on a deserted island. Somehow my father managed to set up a temporary home for us and we lived there with the other boat people for a short time. I remember my brother, Dan caught a fish. He and I used to fish in the seven man-made ponds on our property and he was always the one catching all the fish no matter what. I did not know how he caught this fish since we had no fishing poles, lines or hooks. He brought it to my mother and she made delicious cá kho for all 6 of us (family). It was one of my most memorable meals that I ate as a child. I remember the meal probably because I was starving.

this was the boat we were on in 1979
(over 300 people on board,
some up on board and the rest below deck)
I was in Rye, NH and came across this pair of
sculptures that remind me of my brother and me fishing
in our back yard...and he was the one always with the fish!
On our second island hopping my father set up another small temporary shelter using dried up palm fronds and a plastic tarp at the base of a tree by the ocean--it was prime location but no one in my family knew it at the time! The plastic tarp was used to collect rainwater for drinking while we were on the boat. While living on this island my mother made another cá kho for us. I don't know how she made it since we had no money, I did not remember seeing a market and Dan did not catch the fish this time. Somehow she made this dish. After my family ate, our neighbor (who came on the same boat) asked if he could have some of the sauce so he could feed his brother and sons. The sauce is very good and you can just use it for another whole meal. This is how poor people in Vietnam would extend one meal to the next. You can blanch some vegetables and dip them in this sauce and eat them with rice. That neighbor never forgot my mother's kindness and he still remembered her to this day. We visited them in Canada one year after he was reunited with the rest of his family (wife and children left behind in Vietnam in 1979) years later.

Cá Kho (Braised Fish)--Sieu Hui's way (serves 6 as part of a multi-course shared meal)


1 whole fish (about 2-3 pounds), scaled, gutted, and washed well, cut into 1 1/2 inch wide (see photos)
3 Tbsp fish sauce
3 Tbsp oil (canola, vegetable or olive oil)
3 tsp sugar
4-5 garlic cloves, smashed and chopped
2-3 whole fresh hot chili peppers, optional
1 cup cold water
Black pepper, garnish
Chopped scallion, garnish


Marinade the fish with fish sauce, oil, sugar, garlic, and chili peppers in a large deep pan for roughly 15 minutes.

Heat the pan over medium. Add water. Cook until the liquid reduces down. Carefully turn the fish slices a few times. Once the fish is cooked and the sauce has reduced to your liking, turn off heat, sprinkle with black pepper and fresh chopped scallion. The cooking process takes about 20-30 minutes. The cooking time will depend on the reduction of your sauce. Serve with fresh or steamed vegetables over piping hot rice.

*When it comes to the sauce, everyone has a taste preference. I like my sauce to have a balance, not too salty or too sweet. At the end of cooking if you find the sauce to be too sweet then add more fish sauce, if too salty then add more sugar. You can also thin the sauce out with a little more water if you happened to dry out the liquid during cooking. However, when adding anything at the end just remember to add a small increment of ingredient (s). If you want the dish to be spicier then bruise the chili peppers before putting in the pan.

turn the fish pieces once or twice to
coat them with all the sauce
cook until the liquid is reduced
a few Vietnamese classic dishes
Sieu Hui--the chef
sharing a meal with the family
(typical Chinese or Vietnamese
family-style meal serves with rice)
Sieu Hui and one of her sons
Here are Sieu Hui's instructions in Vietnamese via an email for me! Cam on S. Hui!!

"Cach kho ca Basa: chuan bi 1 con ca, nuoc mam, duong, hat nem, toi, dau an. sau do lam sach ca, cat khoanh xong uop ca voi nuoc mam, duong, hat nem va dau an. de khoang 15 phut cho tham gia vi. roi bac len bep kho voi lua nho va cho them nua chen nuoc vao. kho cho den khi can la duoc. muc ca ra dia cho mot it tieu va hanh vao."--Sieu Hui

*For some interesting photos and stories about the refugee camp in Galang you can check out I have corresponded with Gaylord Barr who taught English in Galang from 1979 to 1980. He reinforced and confirmed what I remember from living in Galang and put a name to places/locations of where I was. Thank you Gaylord! I attended a few English classes and quit after my second or third day because I found the language to be too difficult. Shamefully I do not remember my teacher but I know it was not Gaylord.

My family lived on Site I . My parents worked many long hours, 7 days a week at their small portable "convenient" shop that they set up to sell fruits, candies, and other household items. All four of us kids were under 8 years old. I was the oldest so I took care of my brothers and cooked rice for the family while my parents worked. We did not have the electric rice cooker so I basically cooked from scratch. When I say "scratch" I meant gathering wood, make a fire and make sure not to burn my rice as it was cooking! I remember my brothers and I frequented the Youth Center at night and we listened to older Vietnamese people telling ghost stories until we were shaking with fear. When it got so dark and late we would run home as fast as we could. Although life was tough for my parents in Galang they never complained in front of us and never made us feel unsafe. We were very poor and barely had money to eat our next meal but I never felt that was the case. While in Galang my mother sold my only pair of earrings--they were 
gold dangling earrings with red stones. Looking back now I realized how desperate our life must have been for my mother to exchange a little piece of gold for a few dollars. My brothers and I had a good time while living in the refugee camp and did not get a sense that our family was struggling for survival. I can only thank my parents for protecting my brothers and me for that. They lived a life full of the unknowns and stress and they never showed their fears and anxiety to their children. That is amazing parenting, love, and sacrifice!

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