Tender pork in a sticky savoury sweet glaze made with just a handful of supermarket ingredients, this Vietnamese Caramel Pork is a fantastic way to transform a budget cut of pork into something exotic and spectacular. This is a magical easy recipe!!
Vietnamese Caramel Pork is one of those gems that seem exotic, yet is unbelievably simple AND you can get everything you need at your local supermarket. The pork is braised until tender, and looks completely unimpressive until the last 5 minutes when it magically caramelises and turns into something that you’d pay serious $ for at a posh Asian restaurant.
It’s sweet yet savoury, and the pork is fork tender. It’s called Thit Kho To in Vietnamese, and it’s traditionally made with pork belly. Personally, I prefer making it with pork shoulder (butt) because I find pork belly too fatty.
I just realised – I call this “fork tender”, but I guess it’s more appropriate to say “chopstick tender”… 😂
There is one ingredient in Vietnamese Caramel Pork that you may not have in your pantry but is sold in all major supermarkets nowadays – coconut water. If you’re into healthy smoothies, you may well have some stashed away!!! It’s not expensive, $2 – $3 depending on where you get it (Asian grocer stores are cheaper), and it’s essentially the “secret ingredient” for this recipe. It doesn’t really taste like coconut, it’s sort of salty and sweet. Which makes it ideal to use as the broth for this recipe.
I promised you this is simple – and it really is, which you’ll see in the video. It goes down like this: Put brown sugar and water in a pot, bring to simmer to make a caramel, add pork, fish sauce (NO it will not taste fishy! It’s the Vietnamese version of soy sauce!), garlic and eschallots (french shallots, shallots, depending on where you live). Simmer for 1.5 hours until the pork is tender. Then magically, the pot of pale brown meat pieces in a murky liquid suddenly transforms into bronzed pieces of delectable, ultra tender pork that just melts in your mouth.
The one variable in Vietnamese Caramel Pork is getting the pork to be tender by the time the liquid reduces down. However, it’s a simple fix if you need to adjust – just add a splash of water and keep cooking until the pork is tender enough for your taste.
I love recipes like this. Forgiving, tastes exotic, kapow! flavours. It sounds and looks exotic, but the flavours are universally appealing.
And even if you can’t find coconut water, it can be made with coconut milk. I’ve tried it, and it’s great. A little saucier, a little sweeter, with a slight coconut flavour and smell that you don’t get in the traditional recipe. I was tossing up which to share, but decided to stick to the classic – albeit I’ve already changed it by using pork shoulder / butt instead of pork belly.
Asian Food Lovers – this is for YOU! It’s an absolute ripper that I think you’ll love! – Nagi x
"Thit Kho To" - Tender pork in a sweet savoury glaze. Made using coconut water as the broth, but it doesn't have a coconut flavour at all! It looks so unimpressive right up until the end when it magically transforms into sticky caramelised pork pieces! Traditionally made with pork belly which I find too fatty for this recipe, I prefer using shoulder (butt) because it's still beautifully juicy. It's not meant to be saucy, but you don't need it because the pork is so juicy and all the flavour is inside it. Recipe VIDEO below.
- 1/2 cup / 100g brown sugar, tightly packed
- 1 tbsp water
- 1 kg / 2 lb pork shoulder (butt) or boneless skinless pork belly, cut into 3 cm / 1.2" pieces (Note 1a)
- 1 1/4 cups / 375 ml coconut water (Note 1b)
- 1 eschallot / shallot , very finely sliced (Note 2)
- 2 garlic cloves , minced
- 1 1/2 tbsp fish sauce
- 1/4 tsp white pepper
- Red chilli and finely sliced shallots/green onions
Place sugar and water in a large pot over medium heat. Stir, then when it bubbles and the sugar is melted (it looks like caramel), add the rest of the ingredients.
Stir, then adjust the heat so it is simmering fairly energetically. Not rapidly, not a slow simmer (I use medium heat on a weak stove, between medium and low on a strong stove).
Simmer for 1.5 hours, uncovered. Stir once or twice while cooking.
At around 1.5 hours, when the liquid has reduced down and the pork is tender, (see Note 3 if pork is not yet tender), the fat will separate (see video).
Stir and the pork will brown and caramelise in the fat.
Once the liquid is all gone and it's now stuck on the pork pieces, it's ready.
Serve over rice, garnished with fresh chilli and shallots. Simple pickled vegetables are ideal for a side because the fresh acidity pairs well with the rich pork.
1b. Other proteins/cuts: This recipe is suitable for slow cooking cuts of pork like shoulder/butt and belly. Please don't try this with tenderloin or loin - it will be too dry, there is not enough fat in those cuts.
This recipe will also work great with beef - use slow cooking cuts like chuck, gravy beef and brisket. I don't think the flavours will work with lamb. I tried this recipe with chicken and found it doesn't work quite as well, it works better with coconut milk (see note 1b) but the recipe required other adjustments too so given the popularity of this recipe, I will share the chicken version soon!
1b. Coconut water is different from coconut milk. It's more like a whitish water, and it tastes salty / sweet, and not really of coconut at all. It's sold at supermarkets here in Australia in the drinks aisle - it's popular for "healthy" smoothies and the like, and costs $2 - $3 (Asian stores are cheaper).
This recipe does actually work great with coconut milk as well, but I'd urge you to use low fat / light coconut milk and the end result is slightly sweeter with a coconut fragrance that you don't get in the traditional version. Also add 2 tbsp rice vinegar or cider vinegar. Also slightly more sticky sauce coats the pork. Both are delish, I chose to share the traditional version using coconut water.
2. Eschallots are also known as French shallots / French onions and look like small onions. Don't get too hung up on this - you can even use normal onions. Just finely chop 1/4 cup. Eschallots are good because they are more delicate than normal onions so they add the flavour but dissolve into the sauce.
3. PORK TENDERNESS: The variable in this recipe is the time it takes for the liquid to reduce down vs pork being tender. If your pork is not quite tender enough by the time the braising liquid is almost evaporated, just add 1/2 cup water and keep cooking.
4. Simple Pickled Vegetables: Use a carrot peeler to peel ribbons from 1 carrot. Slice 2 cucumbers. Place 1/2 cup rice vinegar (or cider vinegar), 1/4 tsp salt and 1 tbsp white sugar in a bowl, stir. Add carrot and cucumber, stir. Set aside for 20 minutes until the vegetables soften then drain. Coriander/cilantro and mint are great additions to a simple pickled veg like this. Serve with pork.
5. Adapted from various recipes from Vietnamese cookbooks and this one from Luke Nguyen SBS Food (I found the liquid ratio too high).
6. QUICK VERSION: Here is a quick version inspired by this recipe that I have shared using pork mince (ground pork) -> Vietnamese Caramelised Pork Bowls.
7. The calories in the table below are overstated because it assumes all the fat in the pork shoulder is consumed but there is fat left in the pot after serving.
Vietnamese Caramel Pork recipe video!
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