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Passport & Plate - "Cá cơm kho khô" - Sticky Claypot Whitebait

Vietnam | Friday, 14 March 2014 | 5 photos


Ingredients
300g whitebait (if not available, opt for any white firm-flesh fish and cut into bite-sized pieces)
4 tbsp plain flour
1 tbsp cornstarch
¼ cup caster sugar
1 tsp shallot, chopped
3 bird’s eye chilies, 2 green and 1 red (or to the desired amount of heat), lightly crushed with the blade of a knife for a mild option, or chopped for a spicier option
1 tsp oyster sauce
1 ½ tbsp fish sauce (or to taste)
1 tsp cracked black pepper
A handful of fresh Vietnamese mint leaves, roughly chopped
Oil for deep-frying

To serve:
Ambarella (or green mango), shredded
Steamed rice or plain congee
Lettuce leaves
“Rau sống” (mixture of different Vietnamese common herbs such as Thai basil, mint, shiso, fishwort, etc.)

How to prepare this recipe

FIRSTLY, PREPARE THE WHITEBAIT. Rinse well under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels. Heat the oil to about 160oC. Dust the fish liberally with the flour and cornstarch, then shake off any excess flour. Drop the fish into the hot oil in small batches, fry for about 3-4 minutes, until it looks dry but still slightly soft and not yet take on any color. Set aside.

TO MAKE THE STICKY SAUCE, put the sugar into a clay pot (or a small saucepan that can accommodates all the whitebait) with 2 tbsp water to form wet sand. Melt the sugar over medium heat until it turns dark brown, just like making regular caramel. Immediately add in ¼ cup hot water, reduce the heat to low. Gently simmer until the sugar blends into the water and the mixture looks syrupy. Add in the shallot, chili, oyster sauce, fish sauce, pepper and stir well. Turn off the heat. Set aside.

TO FINISH THE DISH, HEAT THE OIL TO 180oC, add in the whitebait and fry until crispy and golden. Meanwhile, heat the sauce up to boiling point, then in goes the whitebait. Immediately turn off the heat and stir well until every single fish is well-coated with the amber glossy sticky sauce. Add in half of the Vietnamese mint leaves, and give it a good toss. Lid on and keep warm.

TO SERVE, sprinkle the remaining mint leaves on top. Serve with steamed rice or plain congee, shredded ambarellas (or green mangoes), and “rau sống”. I personally like to eat this dish the way Koreans do, using lettuce leaves to wrap everything else and in goes to the mouth in one bite.

***NOTE:
All the herbs and spices could be substitute for different variations. Try lemongrass and galangal, tumeric, or ginger, etc.
For a vegetarian version, substitute fish with vegetables of your choice, replace oyster sauce and fish sauce with vegetarian oyster sauce and soy sauce.
The sauce itself could be used a dip for steamed or boiled vegetables, a true Vietnamese way.

The story behind this recipe

There was a time when I was a picky eater (contrary to who I am today of course)...No existing forces in the universe could ever see me truly enjoy that one ingredient: FISH. Yes, I used to hate fish! What I hate most about it was the way I have to remove the bones to get to the meat without suffering from a bad case of choking, since fish fillet is virtually unheard of in traditional Vietnamese cuisine, sadly. Fortunately, there was WHITEBAIT… A “boneless” fuss-free fish! What could be better?
Well, that brings us to the day my mom brought home tons of whitebait from her trip to the Mekong Delta. When she started to tell storied about her journey, I got lost in the fantastic world of vast plains and mighty rivers. Schools of fish swarms the rivers alongside other inhabitants; humble bushes of herbs grows wildly along the paddy fields giving off enticing aroma; rows of trees filled with fruits waves in the wind. The idea of this dish sparked off. Utilizing ingredients abundant in Southern Vietnam, I came up with a recipe which held that ability to travel me to the countryside of wonder. Crunchy fish is coated with mom’s not-so-secret-anymore savory caramel sauce (I asked for her approval), which I adapted and introduced some aromatic spices. Sweetness, savory, and acidity harmonize beautifully in a “one-pot wonder”. It got a huge yes from mom and dad (and my parents are the strictest critics). Enjoying the dish together somehow makes up for the family meals we missed back in the hard days, when my parents were buried deep in their work.
It has been years since I was that little kid avoiding fish at all cost. Not until now that I realized it was really the feeling of being abandoned had me hated all the dishes that involved the act of sharing and the virtue of patience, in which fish frequently is in present. It is the family bonding times that help me learn to love them, and such simple dishes made with love see my family coming closer than ever before.

About Me

“It should be me!” I have always been a foodie, ever since I could remember. From a little boy begging mom every Thursday night for watching a cooking show, I am on my way to become a chef, with burning passion for food and ceaseless hunger for culinary adventures.
It was the immense love for food that brought me to the show MasterChef Vietnam, where I placed second (or “the first loser”). I am no stranger to cameras, apparently, and by no means a picky diner. I will eat anything with legs, but the chair. (Having a fast metabolism definite is a perk.) I rarely speak my mind, but when it comes to food my heart just pours out. Moreover, as an aspiring chef, I understand the value of hard work behind a dish and am willing to get down to every not-so-coveted business. Having relied on TV as the passport to the world, my knowledge of Italian consists of merely pastas, pizza, and tiramisu. What would be better for a young apprentice than a chance to truly dive in the culture, meet up with the locals, degusting delicacies while learning the craft at the same time? Through a young soul's impressionable eyes every grain of dirt becomes staggeringly different. My "greenness" would lend way to an exploration of exciting revelations.
So why not give a shot when instinctively l know l am the sought after CULINARIAN? A dash of my personality and a sprinkle of good humor would spice up the journey, don't you think? Hopefully this time I would not have to say “It should have been me!”

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