I have made this dish so many times, I have lost count long ago. It packs such strong flavors that bursts in your mouth. With that said, fish sauce is a very common sauce in Vietnamese cuisine and it is quite pungent if you are not accustomed to it (though not the most pungent by far). Give it a try.
My edits to this traditional dish is that I do not use large prawns for the dish. The large prawns are much more expensive, and as a poor college student, I simply can't afford to eat it all the time. Here are my pros and cons of substituting regular shrimp to prawns. The prawns' meat is chewier and is an overall better texture; however, the head is too crunchy, sometimes poking in the wrong direction inside the mouth, leaving cuts. The shrimp's meat is less chewy, but the head is the perfect amount of crispiness. And before you think about ridding the crustaceans' heads, it is an important component of this dish.
*3/8/2012: I finally added a picture. YAY. What I am missing in the picture (it just slipped my mind) is the vegetable that accompanies this dish - Cải bẹ xanh. I'm not sure what the English name for this vegetable is - maybe baby mustard leaves?
Tôm Kho Tàu (Sauteed Shrimp with Fish Sauce)
· 1 lb of shrimp with head on
· 1 tbsp sugar
· 3 tbsp fish sauce
· a pinch of salt
· 1 tsp mushroom seasoning (or any msg substitute)
· 2 tsp ground black pepper (or as much as your taste buds will allow)
· Prune the shrimp so that the head’s tough shell on top is thrown away. Make sure not to damage the red part of the head because that will give the vibrant red coloring to this dish. Peel the body.
· In a large pan, heat 2 tsp oil.
· When oil is hot, add shrimp and lay it out so that none are stacked. Turn the shrimp after a minute or two, so that both sides are cooked. The red color from the shrimp head will seep out.
· Add the salt, sugar, pepper, and fish sauce to the shrimp. Season to taste.
· Add in 2/3 cups of water and let it simmer on medium-low until the sauce is down to about ¼ a cup and the sauce taste is back to its full strength instead of being diluted.