For a truly delicious Vietnamese caramel pork and eggs, make the caramel with palm sugar and simmer the pork in fresh coconut juice.
Coconut juice? Yes.
Use juice from YOUNG coconuts
Yes, from YOUNG coconuts — the ones with meat so thin that it is translucent. That’s the only coconut juice that’s worth drinking and cooking with. With mature coconuts, only the thick meat is usable for grating and squeezing to get coconut milk. Juice from mature coconuts is discarded.
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? 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?
The “caramel” is melted palm sugar
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.
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.”
Adding bamboo shoots is optional
I added bamboo shoots 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.
Vietnamese Caramel Pork with Eggs and Bamboo Shoots
- 1/4 cup vinegar
- 1 kilogram pork belly whole
- 1/4 cup grated palm sugar
- 3 to 4 tablespoons 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 your Vietnamese caramel pork with eggs and bamboo shoots sprinkled with cilantro. Best with rice.sprinkled with cilantro. Best with rice.
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