Vietnamese Caramelized Pork (Thit Kho To)
Vietnamese caramelized pork, or thit kho to, is a classic dish from the Motherland. You will likely see this as one of the many side dishes to rice in a home-cooked Vietnamese meal. Vietnamese caramelized pork is made with small chunks of pork belly slowly braised in fish sauce and caramel syrup. Sometimes pork shoulder is used for a leaner version. The caramel is made from melting sugar in a pan until it gets a nice dark amber color. The pork gets tossed in the syrup for the rich color, and not so much for flavor. Sugar and sometimes coconut juice/soda is added to the braising liquid for sweetness. Westerners might find it odd that sugar is added but the sweetness from the sugar and coconut juice/soda adds a nice subtle complexity to the dish. Although rare these days, you may also find chunks of fresh coconut in the dish. The fresh chunks of coconut adds a refreshing and contrasting texture to the fatty pork.
The sweet and savory sauce from braising is also used as a dipping sauce for boiled and fresh vegetables. Traditionally the dish is prepared in a clay pot cooked over a charcoal grill. In restaurants, they prepare this dish on a stove top and serve in a clay pot for presentation. You can have this dish along with steamed white rice or have it with Winter Melon Soup, or Canh Bi Dao, for a complete Vietnamese meal.
Vietnamese Caramelized Pork (Thit Kho To) Recipe
3 lbs pork belly or shoulder cut into bite-size pieces
1 teaspoon salt (for cleaning pork)
1/4 cup granulated sugar
5 tablespoons fish sauce
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
3 cloves garlic (minced)
1 shallot (minced)
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup hot water
1/2 cup coconut juice
For this dish, you have to blanch and wash the meat thoroughly. Skipping this step will result in a thin layer of meat residue/scum that will be difficult to remove later. It also doesn't look very appetizing either. Also, blanching and washing the pork will remove the off-smell of pork. To blanch the meat, bring water to a boil in a large pot. Make sure to use a pot that will fit all the meat when it gets added. Add salt to the pot. Add the pork. You may leave the pork whole or cut into cubes. Once the pot is at a rolling boil, blanch for 3-4 minutes. Carefully drain the content of the pot into a colander in the sink. Wash the pork with cold running water and let dry.
Combine the remaining marinade ingredients (sugar, fish sauce, black pepper, garlic and shallot) and marinate for at least 30 minutes.
To get that gorgeous brown color on the pork, we caramelize sugar. Use a pot that will use to braise the meat (either a claypot or regular pot). Add the sugar to the bottom of the pot. No oil is necessary. Continuously stir the sugar with a wooden spoon until it caramelizes. Do not walk away when you are doing this because the sugar will burn quickly. You want the sugar to become a dark amber color. It goes from dark amber to black real quick. Once it’s burnt, it’s very bitter. You will have to start over. If you have to redo and have burnt sugar, you will find that scrubbing the burnt sugar off the pan is very challenging. Simply soak the burnt pan in water for an hour. The burnt sugar will dissolve on its own.
As soon the sugar turns a dark amber, add the pork. Pick up the pot with both hands (use pot holders!) and toss the pork until evenly coated. Avoid using a utensil as the sugar will clump on the utensil. The sugar will harden up but do not worry. Continue to toss with the heat on high until the sugar dissolves again. Add the water and coconut juice.
Put a lid on the pot and let it slowly simmer for 20 minutes. Once in a while, remove the lid and toss the pork so that every piece gets coated with the sauce. After 20 minutes, remove the lid. The liquid will reduce and thicken. Braise for another 20 minutes on low. Top it off with either fried shallots, fresh green onions, cilantro or sesame seeds. Serve with steamed white rice.