A long name for a dish but it still doesn’t capture its essence fully. For a truly delicious Vietnamese-style caramel braised pork and eggs, the pork must be slow cooked in fresh coconut juice.
“Caramel” is just melted sugar. But not just any sugar. To get the best flavors, palm sugar is used.
Won’t ordinary sugar do? Well, you’ll get the sweetness that the dish requires, sure, but palm sugar has a flavor all its own. I don’t want to sound like a snob by saying nothing but palm sugar will do but if you want the best results, make an effort to find palm sugar.
What’s so special about palm sugar anyway? Well, there is a complexity that you won’t find in sugar made from sugar cane. A palm sugar addict says, “Depending on the type of palm from which the liquid is collected and the means by which it is processed, palm sugar can evince hints of sourness, smoke, chocolate, caramel, butterscotch, or coffee, or some combination of those flavors.”
Palm sugar isn’t sold as crystals but, rather, as cakes. The sizes vary and so do the colors. You either shave it with a knife, or grate it, to get the amount you need for whatever dish you’re cooking.
What about the coconut juice? Will the kind sold in cartons do? Well… if that’s the best you can get your hands on, sure, but double check that your coconut juice is unsweetened. You really don’t want to turn your pork stew into a dessert.
Why won’t plain water do? Again, it’s about depth of flavor. Coconut juice has a richness that can’t be duplicated by plain water.
Try drinking fresh coconut juice and plain water one after the other and judge for yourself. Coconut juice has a delicate sweetness and a wonderful aroma which plain water does not. Can you imagine losing the flavor and aroma by substituting water to cook this dish?
If, of course, you’re not into discerning nuances in a dish, if you’re okay with a not-bad-tasting dish and your only real requirement for eating is to fill you up, well sure, use plain water. But I’d be really sad for you because you won’t get to experience just how wonderful this dish can be when done with the best ingredients. And I so want you to savor this dish the way it is meant to be because it is THAT good! I promise.
A final note about the bamboo shoots. They’re optional. I added them because I like variety in texture. I think it was from Luke Nguyen that I got the idea but I can’t recall with certainty anymore.
If you want to add bamboo shoots, I recommend canned. Fresh bamboo shoots have to be precooked separately to remove the bitterness. Too much work for an optional ingredient.
- 1/4 cup vinegar
- 1 kilogram pork belly whole
- 1/4 cup grated palm sugar
- 3 to 4 tablespoons patis (fish sauce)
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 4 cups unsweetened coconut juice preferably fresh
- 4 to 6 eggs hard-boiled
- 1 can bamboo shoots (optional) drained and cut into wedges
- torn cilantro to garnish
Boil about 10 cups of water in a pot. Pour in the vinegar and stir.
With the water boiling briskly, carefully slide in the pork belly. Boil for 10 minutes.
Scoop out the pork and rinse well. Cut into two-inch cubes.
Peel and chop the shallots.
In a large clean pan (a wide thick-bottomed pan is ideal), spread the grated palm sugar. Add two tablespoons water and swirl. Set the stove on medium heat and allow the sugar to caramelize, swirling the pan occasionally, until amber colored.
Stir the pork and shallots into the caramel. Cook, stirring, until all the pork pieces are evenly colored.
Season with three tablespoons fish sauce and pepper.
Pour in three cups coconut juice. Bring to a gentle boil lower the heat, cover the pan and simmer the pork until tender.
Forty-five minutes into the cooking time, check the pork. Taste the sauce. If too sweet, balance the flavors by adding the remaining tablespoon of fish sauce. If there is too little sauce and the pork seeds to be simmered longer, pour in the remaining coconut juice.
When the pork is tender, add the eggs and bamboo shoot wedges, if using, and stir gently. Cover the pan. Simmer for another ten minutes.
Serve the caramel braised pork, eggs and bamboo shoots sprinkled with cilantro. Best with rice.