Vietnamese pork shoulder with caramel sauce

Yesterday was a cold, cloudy, and misty day, perfect for making a slow-cooked savory dish. Here, pork shoulder is braised in coconut water and caramel sauce until tender. Green chiles and other aromatic herbs complete the recipe. I made lots of caramel sauce since it has many uses beyond this dish.

Vietnamese pork shoulder with caramel fish sauce

Vietnamese pork shoulder with caramel fish sauce

This dish cooks in a clay pot, for a few reasons. For one thing, clay pots retain heat well and are thus perfect for slow braising. Also, clay pots are usually quite beautiful and can go directly to the table for serving.

If you’re going to make your own caramel sauce, start by getting it ready. Melt 2 lbs light brown sugar in a heavy pot over medium heat. When the sugar is fully liquified and no granules remain, slowly add 2.5 cups fish sauce, stirring constantly. The only tricky part is to make sure the sugar doesn’t overheat and scorch. The sauce will keep for weeks and weeks. (After you’re done with this recipe, try tossing fried chicken wings with the caramel sauce; they’re delicious.)

This is my pork shoulder:

Pork Shoulder

4 lbs of delicious pork shoulder

Cut the meat into large cubes and season with salt and pepper.

Pork, cut and seasoned

Pork, cut and seasoned

Next, brown the meat. This step needs more heat than you can get in a clay pot, so use your wok or a heavy skillet. After cooking the meat on each side for a few minutes, it will look like this:

Browned pork shoulder cubes

Browned pork shoulder cubes

Next, chop your aromatic herbs. For this recipe, I prefer keeping the vegetables in big chunks (except for the ginger, which I sliced thinly).

Green chiles

Green chiles

The aromatics are briefly fried and then they go into the clay pot.

Garlic, shallots, ginger, and chiles, in the clay pot

Garlic, shallots, ginger, and chiles, in the clay pot

The last step is to add the caramel sauce and coconut water. If you live in a big city, you can get fresh coconut water fairly easily. The Asian grocery stores here in Chicago sell fresh coconuts; all you do is hack off the top and pour out the water. Or, as the kids do on warm days, just pop in a straw and drink directly from the coconut. Note that we’re talking about large, fresh, white-husked coconuts here, the ones that are almost the size of soccer balls. The small brown coconuts the size of softballs aren’t as fresh; they’re been sitting around for a long time and they don’t have much water left inside.

If you can’t get coconut water directly from a fresh coconut, there are many brands of packaged coconut water available in most grocery stores.

Coconut water

Coconut water

When it’s all done, it looks like the photo below. You can serve directly from your clay pot if you like, but I decided to transfer the meat to a serving dish. Thanks to Charles Phan, from whom this recipe is adapted.

Finished clay pot pork shoulder

Finished clay pot pork shoulder

INGREDIENTS and PREP:

  1. 4 lbs boneless pork shoulder cut into large cubes (about 1″ x 2″), seasoned with 2 tsp salt and 2 tsp black pepper; browned for a few minutes on all sides in a metal pot with 2 tbsp peanut oil
  2. 4 shallots and 4 green Thai chiles, coarsely chopped; 5 large garlic cloves, crushed; 3″ ginger, sliced; all fried for about 1 minute in the pork fat left over from step #1 above
  3. 4 cups coconut water and 1 cup caramel sauce (see directions above)

DIRECTIONS:

  • Put the fried aromatics (#2) in a clay pot.
  • Add the browned meat cubes (#1).
  • Cover with the liquids (#3) and simmer for an hour until the meat is quite tender. Serve in the clay pot or transfer to a serving dish. Garnish with chopped cilantro and scallions.

Variations: Many flavor variations are possible by simply manipulating the amount of caramel fish sauce. Omitting it completely makes the dish more delicate, with the coconut flavor coming through more strongly. Also, to make a curry with a thicker broth, you could replace the coconut water with coconut milk.

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