As a family tradition, we would spend every Friday night at the one and only, TGI Fridays. My parents must have simply wanted an easy and affordable dinner option after a long week of raising three wild children; however, my siblings and I always looked forward to a night away from our mom’s traditional Vietnamese cooking.
Now, don’t get me wrong, my mom is an excellent cook. It’s only now as an adult, when I’m responsible for cooking my own meals, that I regret the lack of gratitude I had for my mom’s careful Vietnamese dishes. Yet, as a child who grew up watching kids in movies eat meatloaf and mac and cheese for dinner, it seemed at the time that those Americanized dishes were the very manifestation of the American dream (at least my 10-year-old perception of it).
Going to Fridays’ usually meant a cheesy chicken quesadilla or a spicy Cajun pasta. Yet, something that I absolutely never ordered was seafood. This may not seem very odd, as most young children don’t voluntarily order seafood for dinner. But my aversion to these dishes was not due to picky-eating or an overall aversion to seafood itself. In fact, I actually ate seafood pretty regularly at home. The reason I never ordered fish at TGI Fridays, or at any American restaurant, was because of an offhand comment that my father made one night.
He sagely told me to never order seafood at American restaurants. “They don’t know how to make seafood,” he vaguely stated. Now, I don’t know if this opinion was based on a personal bad experience that he had or some kind of wise Vietnamese knowledge that I simply did not have. Yet, that one statement really stuck with me. To this day, I am a seafood-enthusiast and regularly incorporate it into my diet. But, I have never gotten over my fear of the TGI Fridays seafood.
Luckily for me, I had a Vietnamese grandmother. One of my grandma’s staple meals was caramelized salmon, a meal that now seems so sophisticated and unique to most of the loved ones that I cook it for, but that I’m sure my grandma made often due to its easy and quick preparation. Like TGI Fridays’ dinners happened once a week, grandma’s salmon also happened as often, a memory for which I am only now grateful for.
Vietnamese Caramel Salmon
Vietnamese Caramel Salmon, or Cá Kho, is a decadent meal of salmon filets, rice, and a rich caramel sauce. This dish is a staple dinner for Vietnamese families, due to the proximity of Vietnam to the ocean and its dependence on a fishing-economy. Sometimes marinated for days in aromatics like ginger, garlic, shallots, and green onions, Caramel Salmon never fails to impress.
The salmon protein itself is cheap to buy and easy to prepare. Meanwhile, it is coated in a thick and creamy caramel sauce, juxtaposing the fish’s savory flavor with the deep sweetness of the sauce.
Served over rice, often with boiled eggs or roasted vegetables, Caramel Salmon thrives as a meal because the flavors are so complex. The dish is obviously sweet, but has a smoky umami flavor as well. For spice-lovers, adding a few birds-eye chilis can add another layer of depth to a layered meal!
4 salmon filets, about 6-8 ounces each
- Fresh cilantro and green onions
- 1 tablespoon of cooking oil (I prefer vegetable or canola)
- 2 cloves of chopped garlic
- ½ teaspoon of salt
- ½ teaspoon of black pepper
- 1 tablespoon of sliced ginger
- 1 chopped shallot
- OPTIONAL: 4 eggs
- ¼ cup of brown sugar (light or dark)
- 2 tablespoons of fish sauce
- 2 tablespoons of lime juice (or to taste)
- ¼ cup of water
- Heat up a saucepan over medium heat
- Pour in the brown sugar and cook it until it caramelizes into a dark brown color, about 2 minutes, stir as needed
- Remove from heat, add water. The sauce should bubble.
- Put back on heat for another 2 minutes
- Add lime juice and fish sauce
- Let simmer until sauce reaches desired consistency, it should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. This takes about 1-2 minutes total.
- Heat up a wok over medium heat with the oil.
- Sauté the garlic, shallots, and ginger until golden brown.
- Add in the caramel sauce and heat it for about 45 seconds
- Add in the marinated salmon filets, coating them in the sauce, making sure not to overcrowd the pan
- Cook undisturbed for 5 minutes, flip and cook for another 5 minutes
- Garnish with chopped cilantro and green onions. Serve over rice.
- OPTIONAL: Add boiled eggs and coat them in the same caramel sauce.
As with many of my favorite recipes, this meal is highly customizable according to personal preferences. The amount of sauce can be adjusted for those who love a very sauce-heavy meal or can be reduced for those who like a lighter-sauce. Cooking the caramel sauce for less time will produce a more liquid sauce. Cooking the caramel sauce for longer will reduce the sauce and make it thicker. Adding boiled eggs is a touch that my family always added to our Caramel Salmon, but feel free to omit this step or replace it with other roasted vegetables. I personally think that this meal needs a lighter, green vegetable to lighten it up. My vegetable of choice? Watercress! As noted above, adding birds-eye chilis to the sauce can add a spicy-element to the meal. This meal reheats very well and makes for great leftovers or meal prep! Keep it in an air-tight Tupperware in the refrigerator and it will be good for about 3-4 days.