Vietnamese caramelized pork, also known as thịt kho or sườn kho (pronounced like kaw) depending on the cut of pork used, is one of the most common household recipes I can think of… truly comfort food. Just about every Vietnamese mother has her own recipe with its own little twists — some are sweeter, some are saltier, and some, like my mom’s, are very garlicky. What they all have in common is the time (and love) that goes into cooking the sugar long enough to caramelize it and then reducing the sauce ingredients to a viscous, flavor-packed glaze over the succulent braised meat.
NomCat Tip for the Ingredients:
1. The Meat: In this recipe, we use baby back ribs, but you could also purchase pork short ribs / riblets, boneless back fat or belly, or even pork shoulder. When using a rib cut, this dish is known as sườn kho. Use of a leaner, boneless cut of pork, or thịt nạc, would then be known as thịt kho.
2. Coconut Soda: Back in the 70’s when my parents came to America, coconut water was hard to come by. VitaCoco, ONE, Zico, and all those other now-common brands had not yet made it big by marketing coconut water as nature’s Gatorade. So my mom turned to available alternatives, most notably the Coco Rico soda in a green can. I’ve tasted it on its own (you know, the way soda was meant to be consumed) but I just can’t stomach the overly sweet, awkwardly fragrant flavor. Martin grew up on the stuff so when we stock up to make thịt kho, we sometimes get extra for him to drink too. I haven’t noticed it in the American grocery stores so you may have to trek out to your local 99 Ranch for this ingredient.
2 lbs pork ribs, bone-in
5-6 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tablespoons of oil (olive or vegetable)
1 tablespoon thick soy sauce
1 tablespoon fish sauce (nước mắm)
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon soy sauce or seasoning sauce (we like Golden Mountain)
1-2 teaspoons ground or fresh cracked black pepper
1 teaspoon garlic salt
1 can of coconut soda
First, pop open the can of coconut soda to let it go a bit flat while you’re preparing your other ingredients. Separate the side of pork into individual ribs. Set aside. Mince up the garlic, the more the better!
In a large shallow pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat and saute the garlic for a few minutes, until it starts to get browned and toasty.
Arrange the pork ribs in the pan and start browning on all sides. Try to get a sear on them if you can.
Pour in the coconut soda. Add the seasonings and stir to combine. Bring to a simmer and let braise for about 2 hours.
Work in progress… now may be a good time to start cooking up a pot of fragrant jasmine rice and any sides you wish to accompany the dish (perhaps some stir-fried vegetables or a clear-broth soup?).
You will want to check in on it periodically, giving it a gentle stir to make sure nothing’s stuck or burning on the bottom of the pan.
Before you know it, two hours will have passed and your previously soupy-looking sauce will have reduced down to a beautiful, concentrated glaze. Serve over white rice, accounting for approximately 3-4 ribs per person.
Don’t wash the pot just yet — after transferring the braised pork to your serving dish, add a scoop of the cooked rice to the pot and mix well, soaking up every bit of sauce. Known as cơm trộn (or mixed rice), this is always my favorite part!
We hope you enjoy this recipe for a truly comforting dish that both of us grew up eating. If you try it, please let us know how it goes! Vietnamese food is so much more than phở and iced coffee (although we love those too!), and there’s nothing quite like the aroma of thịt kho wafting through the kitchen to really make us think of home.
Many thanks to my mom for letting me reveal the secret family recipe. ;)
[Editor’s note: this entry was updated on 03.06.2013 at 6:30pm to include fish sauce in the list of ingredients. How could we forget such a critical ingredient in Vietnamese cuisine?! Our apologies.]