This is the way so many great meals in my life have been enjoyed: sitting in the street, eating something out of a bowl that I’m not exactly sure what it is, scooters going by. – the late, great Anthony Bourdain
When I went to Vietnam in 2011 I was besieged in the best of ways by the colors, flavors, smells, and sounds that permeated every street and alleyway. To this day, my favorite memories from this trip are of me and my sister enjoying a casual street-side meal: a slow-slung stool, a pair of plastic chopsticks, and mouthwatering meal after meal in a bowl.
One of the best things I ate in Hanoi was the fish: always soaking up that Vietnamese balance of hot, sour, salty, and sweet. This recipe takes me back to those memories — at home, the scene is not quite the same, but the meal is still delicious.
Try to use a heavy cast-iron skillet for this dish, and source the freshest fish you can find. Serve with plenty of warm rice to soak up the juices.
1 pound catfish fillets
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons palm sugar or brown sugar
1/3 cup warm water
3 tablespoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons minced lemongrass
3 green onions, trimmed, smashed flat with the side of a cleaver, sliced lengthwise into 3 pieces
1 tablespoon fried garlic or fried shallots
1. Place the fish on a plate, sprinkle both sides with the pepper, and set aside. In a medium bowl, dissolve the sugar in the warm water, then stir in the fish sauce, and set aside.
2. Place a heavy medium skillet over high heat. When it is hot, add the oil. Toss in the lemongrass, then place the fillets in the hot oil and sear for 1 minute, then turn over a repeat. Add the liquid ingredients. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to medium and add the green onions. Cook for 10 minutes, uncovered, turning the fish over after 5 minutes. As the liquid cooks down, lower the heat little by little, enough to prevent the sauce from burning. It will reduce gradually to a texture similar to a heavy syrup.
3. Serve hot, topped with the fried garlic or fried shallots.