This sweet and salty Vietnamese-style caramelized pork is made with pork shoulder, lemongrass, ginger, chiles, and shallots that are stir-fried in an umami-rich sauce of fish sauce, sugar, and coconut water. It’s easy enough to make on a weeknight and tastes infinitely better than takeout.
The Vietnamese technique of braising meat or fish in dark, smoky caramel combined with a few aromatics and fish sauce yields intensely savory-sweet, umami-rich flavors. It traditionally is cooked in a clay pot, but we use a skillet.
Pork belly is the typical cut, but it’s extremely fatty and not always easy to find in grocery stores. Instead, we use shoulder, which is leaner but still well-marbled and rich in pork flavor.–Christopher Kimball
☞ Table of Contents
Vietnamese-Style Caramelized Pork FAQs
What’s the easiest way to thinly slice pork?
For easiest slicing, after cutting the pork into planks, freeze the pieces uncovered on a plate until partially frozen, about 20 minutes, then use a sharp knife to slice them on the diagonal no thicker than 1/4 inch (6 mm).
Are serrano peppers spicy?
If you’re not a fan of spicy food, then yes – serrano peppers could be very spicy to you. With a Scoville rating of 10000 to 23000, they ring in about five times hotter than an average jalapeno but much less spicy than a habanero. If you’re unsure about whether or not you’d like the pepper in your stir fry, just toss on some food-safe gloves, thinly slice one or two peppers, and put them in a separate dish on the table so that your dinner mates can add some heat if they’d like.
Is coconut water the same as coconut juice?
Yes. They’re the same thing. Coconut water/juice is the very low-fat, translucent liquid that’s found inside a young coconut. Be sure not to confuse it with coconut milk – they are not interchangeable. Coconut milk is much higher in fat and is made by adding water to grated coconut meat.
What should I serve this with?
Some steamed rice and an Asian-style cucumber salad would be great accompaniments.
☞ Like pork recipes? Try these:
- Creamy Pork and Egg Noodles
- Braised Pork with Soy Sauce
- Paleo Pork Normandy
- Pork Chops with Tomato-Sage Gravy
Vietnamese-Style Caramelized Pork
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup coconut water or water divided
- 6 tablespoons fish sauce
- 4 Fresno or serrano chiles stemmed, seeded (if desired) and sliced into thin rings
- 4 medium shallots halved and thinly sliced
- 2 stalks lemongrass trimmed to the bottom 6 inches (15 cm), dry outer layers discarded, bruised
- 4 teaspoons finely chopped fresh ginger
- Ground black pepper
- 1 1/2 pounds boneless pork shoulder, cut into 1 1/2- to 2-inch-thick planks then sliced no thicker than 1/4 inch (6 mm) on the diagonal
- 2 scallions thinly sliced on the diagonal
- Lime wedges to serve
- In a 12-inch (30-cm) skillet over medium-high heat, combine the sugar and 1/4 cup coconut water. Cook, occasionally swirling the skillet to help the sugar dissolve and to encourage even browning, until the caramel is mahogany in color and smokes lightly, 5 to 7 minutes.
☞TESTER TIP: Take care not to stir the caramel while the sugar is dissolving and browning as that can cause the sugar to recrystallize.
- Remove the skillet from the heat and add the fish sauce along with the remaining 1/4 cup coconut water; the mixture will bubble vigorously and the caramel will harden in spots.
- Return the skillet to medium heat, bring to a simmer, and cook, stirring constantly, until the hardened bits have dissolved, 2 to 5 minutes. Add the chiles, shallots, lemongrass, ginger, and 1 teaspoon pepper. Continue to cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute more.
- Increase to medium-high and stir in the pork. Bring to a simmer and cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the sauce reduces and clings to the pork, 13 to 17 minutes.
- Remove from the heat, remove and discard the lemon grass. Taste and adjust seasoning, if needed.
- Transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle with the scallions. Serve with lime wedges.
Recipe Testers’ Reviews
Sometimes you want a dish that is simple, quick, and packs a flavor punch that slams you in the face in the best possible ways. This Vietnamese-style caramelized pork is one of those. I have had dishes like this in Vietnamese restaurants and love them.
So, I was happy to give this a spin in the middle of the week since it seemed very streamlined and doable and I had all the ingredients from a Thai dish I had shopped for a few days before. Definitely glad I did.
It is a keeper and everyone loved every last bit of it alongside steamed jasmine rice and stir fried Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce. The worst part? We had no leftovers for the next day so I am going to be doubling this next time.
This Vietnamese caramel pork recipe was restaurant quality! It was easy to follow and relatively easy to complete. I also loved the use of coconut water for the caramel.
It does call for quite a few peppers, but I personally love spice and if you prefer Fresno over serrano, you will have a spicy smoky heat that balances perfectly with the sweetness of the caramel and the richness of the fish sauce.
The only change I would make is to decrease the fish sauce by a tablespoon or so to decrease the richness a bit. And a word of caution on the caramel – keep the heat on a lower temperature because it can burn quickly!
Despite the caramel in the name, the sauce was not at all sweet, but deep and umami rich. Watch out for the steam when adding the fish sauce and water!
Those who are fish-sauce averse should know that though there is a good amount added, it blends into the sauce. This was a quick weeknight dinner with rice, steamed broccoli, and spinach stir-fried with garlic, and so good that we wanted it a second time in the same week.
Pork tenderloin made an easier but not as flavorful substitute for pork shoulder the second time, and icy cold Albariño went down well with it both times.
This fish-sauce-forward Vietnamese caramel pork recipe has a really fun science component that even a home cook like myself can pull off. I was scared the bubbling caramel would be either under or over, but the recipe steps and tips make it easy to get it just right.
The final dish is more savory than sweet and delightful with jasmine rice sprinkled with some quick pan-toasted desiccated coconut and a glass of dry white. The lime wedges are more than just an optional garnish in the case of this dish; they’re integral to balance the taste.
This was a very easy, straightforward recipe that resulted in a satisfying meal, perfect for weeknight eating. I used one serrano pepper because I didn’t want it to be too spicy, but the next time I make it, I will use two. I would also cut the pork into smaller, bite-size pieces, but the larger pieces didn’t impact the taste of the dish.
Finally, the next time I make the dish, I am going to try my cast iron skillet as I think the caramelization will be even better and the pork will get some crispy edges that don’t happen in a non-stick skillet.
Originally published September 19, 2022