This sweet and salty Vietnamese-style caramelized pork is made with pork shoulder, lemongrass, ginger, chiles, and shallots that are stir-fried in an umami-rich sauce of fish sauce, sugar, and coconut water. It’s easy enough to make on a weeknight and tastes infinitely better than takeout.
Adapted from Christopher Kimball | Milk Street: The World in a Skillet | Voracious, 2022
The Vietnamese technique of braising meat or fish in dark, smoky caramel combined with a few aromatics and fish sauce yields intensely savory-sweet, umami-rich flavors. It traditionally is cooked in a clay pot, but we use a skillet.
Pork belly is the typical cut, but it’s extremely fatty and not always easy to find in grocery stores. Instead, we use shoulder, which is leaner but still well-marbled and rich in pork flavor.–Christopher Kimball
Vietnamese-Style Caramelized Pork FAQs
What’s the easiest way to thinly slice pork?
For easiest slicing, after cutting the pork into planks, freeze the pieces uncovered on a plate until partially frozen, about 20 minutes, then use a sharp knife to slice them on the diagonal no thicker than 1/4 inch (6 mm).
Are serrano peppers spicy?
If you’re not a fan of spicy food, then yes – serrano peppers could be very spicy to you. With a Scoville rating of 10000 to 23000, they ring in about five times hotter than an average jalapeno but much less spicy than a habanero. If you’re unsure about whether or not you’d like the pepper in your stir fry, just toss on some food-safe gloves, thinly slice one or two peppers, and put them in a separate dish on the table so that your dinner mates can add some heat if they’d like.
Is coconut water the same as coconut juice?
Yes. They’re the same thing. Coconut water/juice is the very low-fat, translucent liquid that’s found inside a young coconut. Be sure not to confuse it with coconut milk – they are not interchangeable. Coconut milk is much higher in fat and is made by adding water to grated coconut meat.
What should I serve this with?
Some steamed rice and an Asian-style cucumber salad would be great accompaniments.
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Vietnamese-Style Caramelized Pork
This Vietnamese caramelized pork is sticky, sweet, salty, and savory. The combination of braised pork shoulder, chiles, shallots, lemongrass, and a sweet-salty sauce is completely irresistible.
In a 12-inch (30-cm) skillet over medium-high heat, combine the sugar and 1/4 cup coconut water. Cook, occasionally swirling the skillet to help the sugar dissolve and to encourage even browning, until the caramel is mahogany in color and smokes lightly, 5 to 7 minutes.
Take care not to stir the caramel while the sugar is dissolving and browning as that can cause the sugar to recrystallize.
Remove the skillet from the heat and add the fish sauce along with the remaining 1/4 cup coconut water; the mixture will bubble vigorously and the caramel will harden in spots.
Return the skillet to medium heat, bring to a simmer, and cook, stirring constantly, until the hardened bits have dissolved, 2 to 5 minutes. Add the chiles, shallots, lemongrass, ginger, and 1 teaspoon pepper. Continue to cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute more.
Increase to medium-high and stir in the pork. Bring to a simmer and cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the sauce reduces and clings to the pork, 13 to 17 minutes.
Remove from the heat, remove and discard the lemon grass. Taste and adjust seasoning, if needed.
Transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle with the scallions. Serve with lime wedges.