When I introduced you to Coconut Water in my last post, I mentioned that it is quite often as a braising medium in Vietnamese cuisine. Vietnam has two very popular pork dishes: One called ‘Pork braised in Coconut Water’ and the other known as ‘Caramelized Pork’ (or Thit Kho To in the native tongue). Each has many versions and permutations but there is such an overlap between them that, really, they could almost be considered variations on the same basic dish. Fish sauce and caramelized sugar syrup is essential to the basic flavor of both but Thit Kho To is likely to be the sweeter preparation and may, but often doesn’t include coconut water. Naturally enough, that particular ingredient is an absolute requirement for today’s recipe…
- 1lb Pork Belly;
- 1 medium Onion, sliced very thinly into half-rings;
- 1/3 cup plus 1 tbsp. Sugar;
- 6 tbsp. Fish Sauce
- 1 cup Coconut Water;
- 1 ½ tsp. Garlic Paste;
- 3 large Garlic cloves, chopped coarsely;
- 1 pinch freshly ground Black Pepper;
I have chosen pork belly for this recipe but you can use a different cut if you prefer. Some recipes call for tenderloin but this is bit lean for my taste. A cut from the shoulder with a little fat would be a good substitute. In the above picture you can see how I have sliced the meat and you can follow this or else cut it into slightly larger chunks if you prefer. Either way, just try and keep the pieces as uniformly shaped as possible.
The First step is to blanch the pork in boiling salted water for a minute or two. When no pink remains, drain the meat and then wash it thoroughly in cold water to cool it down and remove any ‘bits’ or scum. Next, mix the pork with the garlic past, the tablespoon of sugar, 2 tablespoons of the fish sauce and the pepper. Cover it and then marinate in the refrigerator for several hours or, preferably, overnight.
When you are ready to cook, heat a tablespoon of oil in a pan over moderate to high heat and then sauté the pork until it turns golden. Remove it to a bowl for the moment and drain off all the fat that has been thrown off except for a tablespoon or two.
Now add the remaining sugar to the pan and stir until it melts and begins to darken. If use you use a fresh pan and oil the sugar will be quite golden but here there is a much more brownish color due to the fragments of fried meat that get scraped up from the bottom . The white bits you can see in the mix are small clumps of sugar that have not yet dissolved. Make sure they have all melted before you proceed further.
Add the pork back to the pan along with the garlic and onion and stir until everything is coated with the caramelized sugar. Then, add the fish sauce and continue stirring until the onion is softened and opaque. At this point, you may note that some of the sugar clumps and starts to harden but, don’t worry, it will dissolve again during the braising.
Finally, add the coconut water and allow it to come to a low boil, Turn he heat own just a little and continue to cook, stirring occasionally until the liquid has almost completely evaporated leaving a thick sauce. Serve immediately.
My wife and I very much enjoyed this served with some rice fried with peas. As I mentioned above, there are all sorts of permutations on this dish and one common addition is whole hard-boiled eggs. I’m not sure if I’d like that or not but I wouldn’t dismiss the idea entirely without trying it. In future, I might increase the amount of fish sauce to a third of a cup or perhaps even a little more as the saltiness might be a nice counterpoint to the sweet…