Emboldened by our recent experience of making caramel candy at home, we decided to take the next step: Vietnamese caramel sauce. Some time ago, I got a copy of Andrea Nguyen’s Into the Vietnamese Kitchen. It’s a great book, and just reading the recipe titles will make you salivate, but so far the only thing I had done out of it was follow general guidelines for fresh spring rolls. Jon had discovered a recipe for a kho of pork ribs cooked in caramel sauce, though, and since he was on winter break he decided to go for it. Vietnamese caramel sauce is very different from caramel candy: it’s very dark, with a deep, almost burnt, bittersweet flavor. I had never tasted it before, and I was amazed at the savory scent of the ribs as they braised.
This is not a quick weeknight recipe, let me warn you. Jon made the caramel sauce in the morning, got the ribs marinating early, then broiled them in the late afternoon. We braised them after I got home from work and had a late dinner. But leftovers were fabulous – even better than the first night – so you could definitely do this recipe ahead and set it all aside for later. We thought the sauce was best when it was reduced down to a syrup, which is easiest to do if you take the ribs out and just boil the heck out of the liquid in the pan.
We served these with white rice and some stirfried Savoy cabbage. Afterwards, we picked the meat off the bones and turned the whole thing into fried rice, which was pretty spectacular. We don’t feel that this recipe has replaced glazed gingery ribs in our hearts, but it was a lot of fun to try.
Pork Ribs Braised in Caramel Sauce (Suon Kho)
from Into the Vietnamese Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen
- 3 pounds pork spareribs, cut apart (she wants them cut extra-small, for riblets, but we just left them as whole ribs)
- 1/2 onion, minced
- 1 Tbsp sugar
- 1 tsp black pepper
- 6 Tbsp fish sauce
- 6 Tbsp caramel sauce (see below)
- 2 scallions, green part only, chopped
Combine the onion, sugar, pepper and 3 Tbsp of fish sauce and rub the mixture over the ribs. Wrap and refrigerate at least two hours or overnight.
Place the ribs on a foil-lined sheet (reserve the marinade) and broil until lightly charred.
Put the ribs, their juices and the leftover marinade into a large Dutch oven and add the rest of the fish sauce, the caramel sauce, and just enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, turn to a simmer and cook, covered, 45 minutes. Uncover and cook another 20 minutes, or until the sauce has reduced enough to be tasty.
Take the pan off the heat and try skimming some of the fat off (hard to do with the ribs still in there). Adjust seasoning to taste. Serve the ribs with their sauce and a sprinkling of scallions.
Caramel Sauce (Nuoc Mau)
- 3/4 cup water
- 1 cup sugar
Put the sugar and 1/4 cup of the water into a small heavy saucepan, and place over medium-low heat. Stir for a couple of minutes, until the sugar is evenly melted. Let it cook, without stirring – it will begin to bubble vigorously.
After 20 minutes or so, it will darken and begin to smoke. Swirl the pan gently as the caramel turns a dark coffee color, then put the pan into a sink partly full of water to stop the cooking. Add the remaining 1/2 cup of water to the caramel and put back on the heat. Stir until it has re-dissolved, then remove from the heat and cool for 10 minutes. Pour into a clean glass jar and let cool completely. Cover and store – will keep indefinitely in the cupboard.