Claypot Sardines in Vietnamese Caramel Sauce

I wanted to make something really special for this second installment of The Novice Gardener’s Fiesta Friday’s 1 year Anniversary Party, so I chose to adapt a recipe from a cookbook written by one of my favorite restauranteurs, Charles Phan.

slanted door 2 (21 of 21)I like this book not only for the recipes and the design, but also for the inspiration.

Which reminds me . . .  I recently read a NY Times OpEd piece which made me sad and a little bit angry at the same time.  May I digress?  It was the story of how the author’s longtime friend died, technically from complications relating to obesity and heart disease and drug abuse, but for journalistic and I think political reasons the author embellished the cause of death to relate to the lack of jobs in the United States.  He made a good point in directing us as human beings towards empathy rather than judgment, but it is a delicate matter to navigate the range of responses to a person who is suffering but who also may be self sabotaging.  We need empathy and compassion, but sometimes we need a kick in the butt too.  After reading the cookbook you may agree with me that how one responds to the loss of a job or bankruptcy or a debilitating injury has more to do with personality, genetic predisposition, cultural background or milieu and mental health than the fact of the loss of the job or the illness.  I am certain the author of the article knows this and perhaps my own reaction to the article tells more of my own personality, etc., than the actual article (haha) but it just hit a chord in me that didn’t sit right, and if you read the story of how Charles’ Phan restaurant(s) came to be, you cannot deny he had a certain innate scrappiness and bulldogishness that caused him to make his own destiny, in spite of obstacles.

Let’s start by getting our Mise en Place:
slanted door (1 of 9) slanted door (2 of 9)

slanted door 2 (4 of 21)

For this recipe you will need whole fresh sardines — head, guts, bones and all.  Do not buy sardines in a can or package, they will make the dish taste bad.  If you are lucky enough to have a fishmonger or fishmarket person who will de-gut and de-bone the fishes for you, spectacular.  If not, and you happen to get them at your local community seafood drop, you’re out of luck and you’re gonna get real messy and smelly.  As a result, your fishes will likely end up in pieces instead of nice and whole as in the cookbook photo.  Just for fun, here’s a photo of the last time my hands touched a whole fish — it’s me and my Mom in Bemidji, Minnesota, with a couple of Walleye Pike.  You can see where I got my mop of hair.  Our friend Bob fried those brothers up and they were delicious!

minnesota (1 of 1)

I’m sparing you of the process photos but after 45 minutes wrestling with my fishes, here’s what I got:

slanted door (7 of 9) slanted door (5 of 9) slanted door (4 of 9)

Next time I make this recipe I will probably use something like halibut, cod or shrimp, cleaned and cut up by the fish market guy and not me.

On to the caramel.  You need roughly a 1:1 ratio of fish sauce to sugar and you may use white sugar, brown sugar or palm sugar.  For 3 sardines, I used 1/2 cup caramel sauce, using 1/4 cup each sugar and fish sauce, then thinning out the sauce with some bone broth.  I couldn’t stomach the amount of sugar called for in the original recipe, so I just cut the sauce amount in half, but using the same proportions.  Note:  I burnt the first batch of caramel sauce and had to not only throw away the sauce but also my favorite petite (1.5 cup size) saucepan.  Keep an eye on the caramel as it is cooking and do not try to multi-task during this time.  It can and will burn in a hot second and you don’t want that to happen.  The smell of cooked fish sauce is bad enough; add burnt sugar, the residue of sardine on your hands, and burnt fermented fish sauce, and you’ve got a real problem if you’re serving this at a dinner party.

slanted door 2 (1 of 21)

Just the cooked sugar here

slanted door 2 (2 of 21)

After adding fish sauce

slanted door 2 (3 of 21)While the caramel sits aside, next cook the aromatics and fruits.  I used 2 shallots, about 1/2 cup cherry tomato, one large garlic clove, 3 thai chilis, a 1 inch piece of ginger, and a midget pineapple.

slanted door 2 (5 of 21) slanted door 2 (6 of 21) slanted door 2 (7 of 21) slanted door 2 (8 of 21)Once the fruits have softened add your fish and let them cook through.

slanted door 2 (9 of 21) slanted door 2 (11 of 21) slanted door 2 (10 of 21)

Plate up with some rice and some contrasting vegetables of your choosing.  I chose mint and cucumber.  Delicious!

slanted door 2 (17 of 21) slanted door 2 (16 of 21) slanted door 2 (15 of 21)

slanted door 2 (20 of 21) slanted door 2 (14 of 21)Have a wonderful weekend!

47 Comments on “Claypot Sardines in Vietnamese Caramel Sauce

  1. Sue thats an amazing dish and it is very special, I have never heard of anything like it and you executed so beautifully. Amazing, I can just imagine how delicious it is. Great addition to the feast!!

  2. Gorgeous, gorgeous dish, Sue!! I’d love to eat this now if I may. I’d also take cucumber and mint. 😀 Thank you for sharing this at FF53. Happy FF and enjoy! 😉

  3. What a fabulous dish! Even if I can’t find fresh sardines around here, I will at least try with another fish. Even my husband seemed impressed with this. And if I may digress now, here’s a useful tip when working with fish. When you are finished, scrub your hands with used coffee grounds. It will not only get rid of all the smell, but leave them silky smooth too.

    • Thank you and also thanks for the great tip on the smell issue. Plus I need silky smooth hands!

  4. That’s a fantastic dish Sue 😃👍 Lot of hard work went into it. Nice pic of you and your mom. I can see where you got your pretty looks from too👰👸

  5. A beautifully executed dish with a passionate defense for not judging others. The tribute in recreating the dish was brilliant Sue. I was intrigued to try this especially when I saw pineapple and mint with the sardines! This is why I love FF! Always inspired.

    • Many thanks Johanne . . . just fresh back from work and now I can sit down and enjoy the party and see what you’ve brought this week. My husband really ate up the pineapple and frankly even though the sauce is somewhat sweet, you need the pineapple and tomato to offset the strong flavor of the fish!

  6. I felt terribly sad reading about Kevin Green. I think that some people are able to cope when the chips are down – they just keep on, whilst others just give up and get pummelled by life. I also think that the America (in fact, the world) of his father’s generation is a very different place to what it is today. Expectations were higher as was the work ethic – I certainly see that here in the UK. It sounds like he did need a kick up the butt however I feel like he got caught up in a vortex of depression which he self medicated with, which no doubt, sent him further down into the darkness and so on. Quite heartbreaking to see that photo of him as an athletic young teen with his whole life ahead of him. But then your gorgeous photos lifted my spirits (shallow – moi?) especially when I saw the one of you and your mum – totes adorbs!! I can almost taste how delicious this dish is. Sardines are a bit of pain to fillet – so many hairy little bones but I think you did a marvellous job. So now I have another cookbook to add to my Amazon wish list! Thanks so much for this thought provoking post and for the gorgeous recipe too – Happy Fiesta Friday!

    • Very articulate and on the money analysis of that OpEd piece. I was so sad for that fella and his family and friends. Life is a gift and a mystery all in one . . . and then some. Causes us to be grateful and joyful, damn the haters!!!! I love that shot of me and my mom and I’m glad you liked it too. You will enjoy the book for sure and he certainly has an eye for style and design, which you will appreciate!

  7. Wow…I think YOU have a scrappiness quite similar to Charles Phan, Sue. To wrestle with the sardines for 45 minutes, and get the yield of fish that you did…that, my dear, is commitment AND scrappiness!! Well done. 🙂 The dish looks incredible and the flavors must be fabulous! Thank you for sharing another spectacular dish with the FF group…this is the perfect celebratory dish for the anniversary party!

    • AW, thank you Nancy and thank you for co hosting. I am so glad to be seeing you regularly again!

  8. You have outdone yourself, Sue! Everything about this post is just stunning! Thanks so much for sharing this with us for the special FF celebration! 😀

  9. What an amazing post, amazing photos and a stunning looking dish!!! All so beautifully put together – and I completely agree with what you’ve said about how people respond to bad/sad situations x
    Happy Fiesta Friday, have fun! Xx

  10. What a fantastic looking platter of food. I have never had fresh sardines but Gene used to eat those “forbidden canned ones” and they did not look too appetizing. I would prefer halibut or shrimp as you mentioned – I know what you mean about “caramel” 🙂

  11. Sue, your dishes are just so inspirational and varied. I love the use of fresh sardines and all those other flavors that are locked in that amazing dish. Unlike other folks, I DO happen to enjoy a whole fish, bones and all, so this offering would be right up my alley. The picture of your Mother and you, just precious! :). Loved your photos too, enjoy the weekend 🙂

  12. Hey, I just bought this cookbook for my brother for Christmas! Your dish looks fab, Sue. Next time you should try catfish, which is another common way of serving this in Vietnamese households!

  13. What a beautiful dish Sue!! Love your plating, it looks so inviting and so bountiful, if you know what I mean 🙂 Love that photo of you & ur mum!

  14. This sounds amazing, and I don’t even like sardines! And I just love your photos, very beautiful.

    • God bless you child, if you love sardines! I had to hold my nose and also heap a few pineapple pieces on top because I am just more used to fish like halibut and cod. Thanks for visiting!

  15. I love the sound of this dish. I have never cooked anything like this! Needless to say I have saved the recipe and will have a think of what seafood to cook this with, it is a must try. Intriguing and beautifully captured 🙂

      • 🙂 they have quite a strong taste, perhaps herrings? I do think you are right and prawns would be nice, I just have to make this 🙂

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