This easy Vietnamese caramelised fish recipe with fresh turmeric, fragrant dill and peanuts comes together quickly. Called ‘Vietnamese clay pot fish with fresh dill’ at Hoi An’s Red Bridge Cooking School where we first learnt to make it, the dish is a combination of two Vietnamese specialties, chả cá lã vọng from the North and cá kho tộ from the South.
Our delicious Vietnamese caramelised fish recipe with fresh turmeric and fragrant dill is adapted from a recipe for Vietnamese clay pot fish with fresh dill that we learnt to cook at the Red Bridge Cooking School when we lived in Hoi An in Central Vietnam in 2013. I’ve given it a few small tweaks but it’s still essentially the same dish. Before I tell you about this easy Vietnamese caramelised fish recipe, I have a favour to ask.
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Vietnamese Caramelised Fish Recipe with Fresh Turmeric and Fragrant Dill
Before we moved to Hoi An in Central Vietnam – where we’d probably still be if it wasn’t for an agent who organised the wrong kind of visa for us – we’d been renting an apartment in Hanoi (on ‘Food Street’ of all addresses!), where there was a famous fried fish dish similar to this Vietnamese caramelised fish recipe with fresh turmeric and fragrant dill that in Southeast Asia would be described as ‘same same but different’.
Hanoi’s chả cá lã vọng is also distinguished by its turmeric and dill, but the fish pieces tend to be fried or grilled and it’s typically eaten with a shrimp paste-based dipping sauce. While in Southern Vietnam there’s another similar yet different Vietnamese caramelised fish recipe called cá kho tộ, which is braised in sugar and coconut water among other ingredients.
Having spent time in Saigon and lived in Hanoi before arriving in Hoi An, we couldn’t help but compare the Red Bridge Cooking School’s claypot Vietnamese caramelised fish recipe, made with fresh turmeric, perfumed dill and roasted peanuts, to the dishes with which we were already familiar.
In some ways, this dish that we first learnt to make in Central Vietnam is a cousin of those dishes of Northern Vietnam and Southern Vietnam, the differences shaped by history, geography and climate, and here I am cooking it in Northern Cambodia. Only a few tips to making this Vietnamese caramelised fish recipe with turmeric and dill cooked in a clay pot, as it’s really very straightforward and so very satisfying.
Tips to Making This Vietnamese Clay Pot Caramelised Fish Recipe
I only have a few tips for making this Vietnamese caramelised fish recipe with fresh turmeric and fragrant dill as it’s super easy and comes together very quickly, even though you need to pound a marinade and paste in a mortar and pestle.
It takes just a few minutes each to pound the marinade and paste, and only around ten minutes maximum in total, so don’t try cutting corners by using anything store-bought pastes as cooking from scratch and using fresh quality ingredients is what makes this Vietnamese caramelised fish recipe so good.
At Red Bridge Cooking School, the cooking instructor instructors were adamant about a few things. One was that this was a very versatile dish and not to get too hung up about what kind of fish fillets to use, as Vietnamese wouldn’t. They recommended mackerel, salmon, snapper, sea bass, basa, catfish… you name it, they insisted all would work. I’ve eaten it with trout in Sapa.
I make this dish with salmon here in Siem Reap, which, while not local, is enormously popular amongst Cambodians and readily available. I also happen to adore it, and salmon and dill are a perfect match. While you could certainly use salmon steaks, I prefer smaller pieces as the fish absorbs the turmeric marinade better, plus fish pieces work better with steamed rice or noodles than steaks.
While this dish is traditionally cooked in a clay pot, I have heard kitchen stories from Vietnamese restaurants where chefs have cooked these kinds of dishes in pots, pans and woks, and only transferred them to a clay pot for serving, so use a small deep frying pan or small cooking pot guilt-free, and obviously if you’re scaling up for more than two people and doubling or tripling the ingredients, you’ll need something larger.
Don’t forget to taste your sauce and adjust the seasoning to suit your own taste, which is so important with Southeast Asian food, especially when you’re using ingredients such as fish sauce, which can be very salty for some people, and chillies, which can be quite fiery if you’re not used to the heat.
When it comes to fish sauce, we have a large collection and use Vietnamese fish sauces for Vietnamese dishes, Cambodian fish sauces for Cambodian recipes, Thai fish sauces for Thai dishes etc. But if you’re living outside Southeast Asia and don’t have access to a wide selection of fish sauces, we recommend Thailand’s Megachef for a top quality fish sauce for most Southeast Asian recipes, as its sodium levels always consistent. It’s easy to find in Australia. Our American friends recommend Red Boat Fish Sauce although we haven’t tried it as we’ve never seen it in Southeast Asia.
For sugar, we mostly reach for our jars of creamy palm sugar in the fridge, which pre-pandemic we bought directly from a family about a 20-minute drive from home. The husband harvests it in the wee hours of the morning directly from the sugar palm or palmyra palm trees (Borassus) behind their home, and the wife then spends much of the morning reducing it in a massive wok to a thick consistency resembling creamed honey. We also use it in a hard tablet form, as well as granulated. You can buy palm sugar online, or use coconut sugar, or brown, raw or white sugar.
Lastly, be gentle when handling the fish, so the pieces don’t break up too much, and you end up with something looking like scrambled eggs. Red Bridge Cooking School’s original recipe calls for spring onions or scallions, which I’ve left in the adapted recipe, below, but haven’t used myself this time around, as the dish is delightful enough for me with dill. If you’re a lover of fresh dill, as I am, use plenty of it, both in the pot at the last minute, and provide extra on the table for fresh garnish.
Do as the locals do and serve with either steamed rice or rice noodles. If you’re outside Vietnam or Southeast Asia and can’t get fresh rice noodles, use dried vermicelli (just follow the instructions). If you enjoy this dish, you should also like this Vietnamese braised pork belly with eggs dish.
Vietnamese Caramelised Fish Recipe with Turmeric and Dill
- 50 g fresh turmeric
- ½ tsp salt
- ½ tsp pepper
- 1 tbsp fresh dill roughly chopped
- 3 tbsp vegetable oil
- 400 g fish fillets salmon, mackerel, snapper, sea bass
- 3 cloves of garlic
- 3 shallots
- 2 large mild red chillies
- 1 small birds-eye chilli seeds removed (optional)
- ½ tsp of black pepper
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 3 tbsp fish sauce
- 1/2 cup of water
- 2 tbsp fresh dill roughly chopped
- 2 tbsp spring onion or scallions finely chopped
- 1 tbsp roasted peanuts
- To create the dill and turmeric marinade, wash, dry and peel the fresh turmeric knobs, chop roughly, and pound in a granite mortar with a pestle until completely crushed, then add salt, pepper, fresh dill, and one tablespoon of vegetable oil, and combine.
- Cut the fish fillets into large pieces of around 5cm x 5cm or thereabouts. Transfer the dill and turmeric marinade to a bowl or plastic zip-log and add the fish pieces, ensuring they’re completely covered with the marinade, then refrigerate for a minimum of one hour to absorb the flavours.
- Create a paste by pounding the garlic in the mortar, then add the shallots and pound, then add the chillies and pound, then set aside. Only add the birds-eye chilli if you like heat.
- To a clay pot, small frying pan or small cooking pot, add the garlic, shallot and chilli paste, two tablespoons of vegetable oil, and pepper, stir to combine, then cook on low heat for a minute or so until aromatic and sizzling.
- Sprinkle in the sugar, stir, and allow to caramelize for a minute or two. Then add the fish sauce, stir to combine, add the water and stir, then turn up the heat to bring to boil.
- Once the sauce boils, turn the heat down. Try the sauce and adjust the seasoning to suit your taste, then add the fish pieces, and gently cook until just done.
- Sprinkle chopped fresh dill, sliced spring onions or scallions, and roasted peanuts over the fish, put the lid on the clay pot to keep warm or transfer to a serving dish, and serve immediately with steamed rice or rice noodles, and more fresh dill.
Please do let us know in the Comments below if you make this easy Vietnamese caramelised fish recipe as we’d love to know how it turns out for you, and we’d also love some feedback and a rating.