The Asian market experience

A friend recently asked me how much extra time this new cooking project is costing me.  I didn’t really know how to respond – it is taking some time, but I also really enjoy doing it – so I’m not exactly counting the minutes. This quote pretty much sums up my feelings about it,

“Cooking is like love, it should be entered into with abandon or not at all.”  –Harriet van Horne

I have always spent much of my leisure time browsing cookbooks, planning and making meals for myself at home, for friends at work, parties and potlucks.  Now my reading is just focused in a particular cuisine, which in some ways makes it easier, but I also have to look for variety within the cuisine and keep pushing the limits so that there’s something interesting to try and write about.  Probably the most tricky part has been taking the time to find non-standard ingredients through trips to local Asian markets.  Which brings me to today’s trip to Grand Asia Market in Cary.

My friend Minh who joined me in the cooking demonstration earlier this month is Chinese-Vietnamese.  She has spent most of her life in the U.S. and although she is a great cook, Minh admits that she never learned to cook Vietnamese as well as she should have.  Lucky for me, her mom Anh is visiting from Northern VA, and was able to join us for an outing to the market today, and to give me some cooking tips!

First of all, there is a full Chinese restaurant and a bakery in the market.  

Of course, I couldn’t resist the bakery, even though ‘technically’ it’s Chinese instead of Vietnamese…. but there are so few Vietnamese desserts that I decided to go ahead and get some sweet goodies from the bakery.  Today I ate the first of the treats, this coconut bun filled with coconut cream.  I also bought an egg custard tart, an almond pastry and a peanut rice ball – all for just a little over $5!

The grocery store offers a lot of fresh produce, I saw some beautiful snap and snow peas, eggplant and baby bok choy.  There were also many items that I didn’t recognize, like this jujube fruit.  Anh helped me pick out a few to taste.  I also picked up some rau ram and thai basil, lemongrass, and ngo om (translated as “rice pado herb”) that Anh said would be good with a soup that I’m planning to make later this week.  Rau ram is a Vietnamese coriander that I’ve seen in a lot of recipes and is used commonly as a table herb for garnishes and salads.  I also bought a green papaya which I’m planning to use later in the week.

There are a lot of fresh fish at the market, including live fish and eels.  For some reason, this sign struck my funny bone. I think it was the word ‘aggravate’ that really got my imagination going :)

I also got a lesson in fish sauce and soy sauce.  According to Anh, certain fish sauces are better for cooking and others are better for dipping sauces – and the same with certain soy sauces.

I hadn’t thought about that distinction before, but it makes sense that certain flavors work better raw or cooked.  The Three Crabs brand fish sauce on the left is the sauce I had been using, which is best for dipping sauces.  Anh suggested the Golden Boy brand for a better flavor when cooking with fish sauce.

I used the Golden Boy fish sauce for tonight’s dinner – catfish braised in caramel sauce, or Ca Kho To.  I had seen a number of recipes for this dish, but they were quite different from each other.  This is a dish that Anh prepares often, so she was able to talk me through her method.  The recipe below follows her instructions, I added some measurements as I made the recipe, and made a few guesses based on the other recipes I had seen. The word “caramel” sounds strange in conjunction with a fish recipe, but as you can see in the recipe it’s not a lot of sugar, it’s really just  a way of adding a depth of flavor and sweetness to the fish. Ca Kho To is a Southern Vietnamese “comfort food”, and I think it turned out very well.  The fish was very tender and flavorful from the slow braise.

Catfish Braised in Caramel (Ca Kho To)

1 lb. catfish fillets, preferably thick, cut into large slabs
Tops of three green onions
2 Tbsp. fish sauce
1 Tbsp. canola oil
Ground black pepper
3 Tbsp. sugar
Boiling water

Mix the catfish with green onions, fish sauce, oil and ground pepper.  Marinate for 2 hours in the refrigerator.

Boil some water in a teapot and have it handy.  Add 3 Tbsp. sugar to a heavy-bottomed pan (traditional is a clay-pot, I used cast iron) and just enough water to wet it.  Cook until sugar is golden brown caramelized, but not too dark.  Immediately add boiling water to the caramel. Add the fish and arrange into a single layer in the pan.  Add enough water to barely cover the fish (about ¾ – 1 c.).

Simmer the fish, uncovered, for about 30 minutes or until the sauce starts to thicken and the flavors are concentrated.  Serve over rice.


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