Though the ocean was never more than 40 minutes away, the Jacksonville beach community was always intimidating tight-knit and seemingly impenetrable until I, a mere ‘townie,’ bonded with a beach bum extraordinaire. I’ve spent a solid chunk of my short summer by the Atlantic Ocean, making up for whatever time I lost building sandcastles as a kid or social-tanning in preteen years.
My sodium levels have probably skyrocketed since sailing Thailand and bumming around on the sand here, and the saltwater coursing through my veins just makes me hungrier for seafood.
Not unlike me, the wild sea trout (Salmo trutta trutta) grows up surrounded by sea but swims upriver later in life—I’m not planning to mate or spawn anytime soon, so that’s where the metaphor stops. It’s a pretty fish with an earthy-coloured sheen and pink accent from all the shrimp and crustacean in its diet. Its flesh is similarly pink-hued and makes a perfectly good substitute for more expensive salmon varieties. Many species of trout are farmed nowadays, but these are the last few months to find wild sea trout at your local fishmongers, especially for those in Europe, to where these fish are native.
This preparation is inspired by a Vietnamese clay-pot-caramelised dish called Cá Kho Tộ. In the absence of the unglazed clay pot (which is soaked with water to release steam during cooking) but craving these sweet-salty-spicy flavours of Southeast Asian cuisine, I hacked the process to suit a more modern and Westernised kitchen. The flavours won’t have the same exact complexity and deep caramelisation, but this is an excellent recipe to start with if you’re intimidated by cooking or eating fish. I didn’t start handling seafood in the kitchen until last year, and this was one of my go-to recipes whenever I felt a tad more ambitious than ceremoniously throwing a whole fish in the oven. The sear is pivotal, and you’ll find that the sauce reduces to a syrupy goodness in no time.
Vietnamese Sweet & Spicy Fish (Ca Kho Tieu)
- 225g (½lb) fish fillet (firm, white-fleshed)
- ½ t freshly ground black pepper
- 1 T muscovado
- ¼ cup warm water
- 2 T fish sauce
- 2 T vegetable oil
- 1-2 Thai red chillies, sliced
- 1 stalk lemongrass
- 3 scallions
Fillet the fish, cut into smaller sections, rub with black pepper, and set aside.
Dissolve sugar into warm water and stir in the fish sauce.
Smash and trim the stalks of lemongrass so you’re left with the pale-coloured sections. Mince very finely. Cut white parts of the scallion in half lengthwise, then cut the green parts to 2-inch sections. Set aside.
Heat a bit of oil over high heat before adding lemongrass and stirring for 10 seconds. Add the fish and sear for 10-15 seconds. Using a spatula, carefully turn fish over and sear on the other side.
Add liquid ingredients and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to medium and add green onions and sliced red chilies. Cook for another 3-5 minutes uncovered.
Flip the fish and cook for another 3-5 minutes. If sauce looks like it’s cooking off too quickly, lower the heat or partially cover; you want to reduce it to a syrupy consistency, but not completely evaporated.