Vietnamese food isn't complicated stuff and often times, it's a rather simple combination of flavor and involves just a few ingredients. The other day, catfish fillet was on sale at the market and it looked good — thick and with some slimy gloss, a sign of freshness. I bought 2 pounds to fry. Admittedly, catfish steaks would be fried if I was feeling like a purist, but I was looking for a simple home-cooked entree.
One of my favorite recipes is to panfry catfish and then make a relish of slow cooked onion and ginger with a splash of fish sauce at the end. That childhood favorite takes a long time to fry so I decided to deep fry. I was low on onion but high on lime so I opted for a classic Vietnamese. ginger lime dipping sauce (nuoc mam gung), which is often served with seafood. The result was fast, easy and delish. If you're afraid of deep frying, know that this is pretty low on the drama factor. It's very gentle and relatively fast. There was plenty of leftovers, which I refried a couple days later for another meal.
Fried Catfish with Ginger Lime Dipping Sauce
Serves 4 to 6
2 pounds catfish fillet
1/4 cup cornstarch, potato starch or tapioca starch
Canola or corn oil, for deep frying
2/3 cup Ginger Lime Dipping Sauce (Nuoc Mam Gung)
1. Make the dipping sauce first. In a small bowl, combine the ginger, lime juice, and sugar and stir to dissolve the sugar. Taste and adjust the flavors with more lime sugar or sugar as needed. The ginger and lime should both be prominent, but not to the point that they make you wince and pucker. Add the fish sauce, starting out with 2 tablespoons and adding more as your palate dictates. Set aside for 30 minutes to let the ginger bloom before serving.
2. Blot the fish dry with paper towel and then cut each fillet into squarish pieces, each about 2 by 2 inches big.
3. Use a medium saucepan, flat-bottomed wok, deep skillet, or 5-quart Dutch oven to fry the fish in. Pour in the oil to a depth of 3/4 to 1 inch and heat over medium-high heat to about 350ºF on a deep-fry thermometer. (If you don't have a deep-fry thermometer, stick a dry bamboo chopstick into the oil; if bubbles rise immediately to the surface, the oil is ready. )
4. As the oil heats up, toss the fish in the cornstarch, lightly tapping off the excess. Working in batches, slide the fish into the oil and fry for 2 to 4 minutes, flipping midway, until the fish is golden and lightly crisp. Scoop from the oil and drain on paper towel or a rack placed inside a baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining fish. When you're about to serve, if any pieces of fish have softened, briefly refry them to crisp them up. Serve immediately with the dipping sauce.