CARMELIZED WHITE PERCH
Secrets of the Red Lantern (Vietnamese)
by Pauline Nguyen and Luke Nguyen
Mark Jensen: This is my favorite dish on the menu. I like to use white perch for its richness and muddy characteristics. The Vietnamese appreciation of eating meat with the skin and bones also transfers to eating fish. At Red Lantern, we inform our guests beforehand that this dish is served traditionally—the flavors are rich, strong, and pungent, and the fish is cooked with skin and bone. Most are undeterred and have come back time and time again for this dish. The fish glistens and melts in the mouth. On simple jasmine rice, it is silky and seductive.
The clay pot is a primitive but efficient piece of equipment. When used for cooking, a clay pot distributes heat evenly. When presented at the table it maintains heat much longer than a regular serving bowl. The clay pot is often used for caramelizing and braising as it gives the ingredients an earthy dimension, imparting smoky aromas. Like a wok, the clay pot should be looked after.
Carmelized White Perch: Ingredients
(Cá Kho Tô)
• 1 whole white perch (10½ to 12 ounces)
• 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
• 1 clove garlic, ground
• 3 shallots, diced
• 1/3 cup sugar
• 2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
• 1 scallion, sliced
• 1 bird's-eye chile, sliced
• Cracked black pepper
Place the white perch flat on a board. Using a cleaver or large knife, remove the tail, fins, and head from the fish. Cut the fish from the tail into 3/4-inch sections.
Put the oil in a small saucepan over medium heat, add the garlic and shallots to the oil, and fry until the garlic turns golden brown. Strain the oil through a fine metal sieve into a small clay pot, discarding the garlic and shallots.
Add the sugar and 1 tablespoon of water to the clay pot over medium heat. Cook for about 5 minutes to make a rich, dark caramel, then add the fish.
Seal the fish on all sides in the caramel, then add the fish sauce and 3 tablespoons of water and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat slightly and continue to cook the fish for about 5 minutes, or until cooked through.
Garnish this dish with the scallion, chile, and black pepper.