A few years ago, I discovered a Vietnamese recipe called 'Caramel Pork Belly' that was so ridiculously simple I became suspicious while making it. How could it be so good? Melt sugar, add water, melt together, add flavourings, boom. The most delicious, sweet and savoury pork cubes cooked until tender. The sauce, flavoured with fish sauce, sugar and black pepper isn't going to win you any health awards but this was a few years ago, when I was young and carefree. I ate it almost once a week.
I discovered some such recipe in Vietnamese Market Cookbook, written by Anh Vu and Van Tran, except this had a lengthy set of ingredients and salmon is used instead of pork. My curiosity was peaked with the use of 'gia vi', a mixture of sugar, salt, pepper and garlic powder that I haven't come across before. Galangal and ginger break up the richness of the salmon, and the surprise addition of coconut milk mellows out the bold fish sauce and sugar flavours. The black pepper brings a warming spice to the sauce, and it was so moreish I ended up spooning the leftovers straight out of the claypot and into my mouth.
I made some adaptations to the recipe; I didn't fancy the salmon's chances after simmering for 25 minutes, so that cooking time is much reduced. I also made the most of the skin, frying it until crisp, for a little textural contrast.
Salmon with Ginger Caramel
Serves 2 (adapted from The Vietnamese Market)
2 salmon fillets, skin separated and reserved
25gr thinly sliced fresh ginger
100ml coconut milk
1 large red chilli, sliced into rings
1/2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/2 tbsp gia vi (which is described as 2 parts sugar, 1 part salt, 1 part freshly ground black pepper, 1 part garlic powder)
1/2 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp sugar
1 clove of garlic, grated (on the finest setting of your box grater, or microplane)
1 tbsp grated ginger
1/2 tbsp grated galangal
1 stalk of spring onion, chopped diagonally
2 tbsp sugar
Mix together all the ingredients of the marinade. Chop the salmon into large chunks, and use your hands to coat with the marinade. Set aside for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the caramel. Set a claypot or a heavy saucepan on a medium heat. Add the sugar and melt gently, stirring so that all the grains are dissolved. Cook to an auburn colour, taking care not to burn it. Add the water - it will seize, but heat until the sugar dissolves into the water. Add the fresh ginger and set to one side to cool.
Use a non-stick pan to make the salmon skin crisps. Place the skins flesh side down in a cold non-stick frying pan, and gradually bring it up to a high heat. Use a spatula to press the the skin down, then turn the heat to medium and turn over carefully. Keep frying, pressing, turning for 5 - 8 minutes until golden and crisp. Remove, sprinkle with a little salt and place on a wire rack.
Add the cooled marinade to the salmon for 20 minutes (perhaps cook your rice at this point). Add it to your claypot or saucepan and place on a high heat. As soon as it starts bubbling, use two spoons to remove the salmon chunks and add the coconut milk. Add the chillis and simmer until reduced - around 10 minutes, then place the salmon chunks back in, turning very gently and frequently for about 10 minutes until cooked. Scatter with spring onion, place the lid on and leave to sit for 5 minutes. Taste if you need more fish sauce or sugar, and serve over white rice and steamed greens. Either break the salmon skin in half to garnish, or roughly bash into small pieces to scatter on top of each bowl.