For the next eight years until we emigrated to the States, my mom immersed herself not only in the language and the culture of my dad's country, but also the cuisine. She had a natural knack for recreating dishes by taste, and by the time we arrived in Podunk, Arizona, she was able to recreate a number of those dishes, in my parents' restaurant, for the Korean women who also left their homes, for Fort Huachuca, with the Army men they married.
It wasn't until we moved to Garden Grove, CA in 1984, close to a large Vietnamese community, that my mom was given easy access to the ingredients she needed to cook the foods of her country and childhood. And boy am I grateful, for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with food, but of course also for the reasons that do, that we did.
Since that first awkward introduction to pho when I was nine years old, I have come to love the incredibly flavorful, contrasted, balanced and nuanced cuisine of my mother's country and find myself craving it often. More so now that I no longer live within a five minute drive of some of the best and most inexpensive (so inexpensive it almost doesn't make sense to make it yourself) Vietnamese food you'll find anywhere in the world.
So now as we're moving to a funky little new neighborhood that brings with it a ten minute walk to the beach, a five minute drive to a decent weekly farmers' market, new opportunities to teach and write about cooking, but only a handful of (questionable at this point) Vietnamese restaurants, I'm looking forward to the challenge and adventure of recreating more Vietnamese food in my kitchen with the help of one short, feisty, resilient, resourceful, Vietnamese conspiracy theorist (as Asian mothers are oft wont to be), otherwise known as Mom.
This Vietnamese Caramelized Pork is made in a similar fashion to the popular ca kho to (caramelized catfish), only without the ca (catfish, or fish generically) and the to (earthenware pot).
We used this to make Vietnamese street tacos the other night, but it's simply delicious over a bowl of steamed Jasmine rice with a few spoonfuls of that rich braising liquid poured over it.
- 2 to 2.5 pounds pork country ribs/ shoulder/butt/ picnic shoulder, cut into 1.5 to 2 inch cubes
- 2 Tablespoons minced garlic (3 to 4 cloves)
- 1/4 to 1/3 cup tightly packed brown sugar depending on how sweet you like your food (dark preferable, light ok)
- 1/8 cup fish sauce (I used Tiparos brand, which is widely available)
- 1 green onion, chopped
- 1 1/2 cups sliced onion (about 1 small)
- 1 cup water
- 2 Tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 Tablespoons vinegar (Distilled white, apple cider, or even red or white wine will work. The acid helps to tenderize the pork and add a little balance to the salty and sweet elements. You could use balsamic, which would make the color darker and richer, but you'll have that really aged grape-y flavor that might take this dish into a sort of Italianese/Vietnamalian (???) fusion thingy...)
1) In a large bowl, combine the pork with the garlic, brown sugar, fish sauce and green onion. Mix thoroughly to ensure even distribution of the seasonings. The best way to do it is just to get in there with your hands and massage the pig. Time permitting, let the pork marinate for 20 minutes or so to allow the seasoning to penetrate the meat.
|... the pig.|
2) In deep skillet or pot, heat 2 Tablespoons of a neutral oil over medium high heat and sear the pork, 4 or 5 pieces at a time (don't want to crowd the cooking surface) until the fatty bits get a rich, dark, caramel color, 2 to 2.5 minutes per side. This is one of those rare instances in which you could actually put the seared pork back into the bowl with the uncooked pork without worrying about contamination because all of it is going back into the pot to cook for a long time.
3) After the pork is seared, add the onions into the pot and saute until they just begin to become translucent, about 2 minutes. This quick saute develops the flavor of the onion and helps it hold some shape during the long simmer.
4) Put the pork back in the pot, and increase the heat to medium high. Add the water, soy sauce and vinegar, stir to ensure they get evenly distributed, and bring to a gentle boil (i.e., the liquid is bubbling gently and consistently but not so actively that it splatters).
5) Reduce the heat to medium low and cover the pot. Simmer 45 to 50 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes or so to ensure that the meat gets evenly seasoned and cooked. Because heat accumulates, watch for signs that it's getting too high (the aforementioned splattery bubbling) and adjust back down if that happens.
At this point, the meat should be fork tender. If not, cover and simmer another 5 minutes or so.
6) Once the meat is fork tender, uncover and reduce the heat to low. Simmer another 15 minutes to reduce, thicken and further caramelize the braising liquid. Stir every 5 minutes to further ensure even seasoning and cooking.
If you refrigerate the leftovers, you'll find that the braising liquid becomes gelatinous, and it's not pretty. But give it a warming on the stove or a zap in the nuker, and it's back to its saucy goodness in no time. Sometimes, I like that braising liquid over steamed rice even better than the pork itself. Hurts to throw it away...
|Sweet, caramelized onions with tender, unctuous pig...|
It's looking like a scrappy soup tonight. Wish I had some of this stuff instead.