It's hard to believe that when I first made Vietnamese Caramelized Pork almost four years ago in China, I had the hardest time finding fish sauce. Beijing locals know what they like to cook at home, and it's not Cantonese or Southeast Asian. (Regional culinary borders are much stronger in China than they are here, so even wonton wrappers or thinner dumpling wrappers were available in only a handful of markets.) Luckily, finding fish sauce is much easier to find in my neighborhood in Park Slope, whose fish markets and Korean-run bodegas stock fish sauce now and then. (Being a short subway ride from Sunset Park helps too.)
Here's a revised version of the caramelized pork recipe I first posted on December 28, 2007. Updates include more braising liquid and a longer simmering time for more fork-tender, melty pork. I've remade this over the years with both pork shoulder and pork belly, and both are phenomenal with this caramelized sauce. Give it a try and let me know what you think!
I never thought I would have trouble finding fish sauce in China. Growing up, many of the Cantonese dishes my mother cooked contained fish sauce. In New York's and Boston's Chinatowns, Squid Sauce and other varieties of nam pla were staples in every market.
Even though fish sauce is hardly used in northern Chinese cooking, I didn't think it would be hard to find in Beijing. Even if Thai, Vietnamese, and other Southeast Asian cuisines aren't too popular here, various Cantonese dishes aren't hard to find. But of the 3 supermarkets in my neighborhood, none carried it. I then scoured the Lotus Center in Wudaokou, thinking that with the neighborhood's large Korean population the supermarket must carry all sorts of fish sauce.
Well, I did find it, but not in the sauce aisle. Rather, there was just one kind, amongst imported goods like mirin and shochu. Guangdong province really is like another country.
With fish sauce in hand, I was able to try the Vietnamese Caramelized Pork recipe I found in the NYTimes. It's a good recipe except that it calls for 1/4 cup of fish sauce. That is madness. The point of fish sauce is to use just enough to bring out the dish's other flavors. After much trial and error (and finding out how poor my apartment's ventilation is), I've found that 1 tablespoon in this recipe is the perfect amount for highlighting the flavors, while sparing your kitchen from fish sauce overdose.
A fair warning: the pork turns such a beautiful rich brown color, and is so tempting in the pot, I had to remember to wait for it to fully cook to taste.
Vietnamese Caramelized Pork (Thit kho to)
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 cup water
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- 1 pound pork belly or boneless pork shoulder (skinless or skin-on), cut-into 1-inch cubes
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 large shallots, chopped
- 1 scallion, green part only, thinly sliced
- Rice for serving.
- Line the bottom of a medium- to large-sized sauce pot with the sugar. Place the pot over low heat. When the sugar melts and becomes amber-colored, add the water and fish sauce. (Don't worry if the sugar hardens upon contact with water; it will re-melt as it cooks, forming a sauce.) Add the pork and stir until coated. Raise the heat to medium low.
- Add the salt. Simmer on medium-low heat for 25 minutes. Be sure to keep this at the lowest simmer possible for a more tender finished product.
- Stir in shallots and and cook until translucent, another 5 to 7 minutes. The sauce should now be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. If that’s not the case, turn the heat up a little and simmer for another 5 minutes until the sauce is further reduced.
- Transfer to a deep serving dish and sprinkle the scallions on top. Serve with rice and/or other sides.