In Vietnamese cuisine, a kho is a slow-cooked stew, usually made in a clay pot to seal in juices and make whatever’s cooking extra tender. The caramel sauce used in this dish is considered, “the cornerstone of Vietnamese cooking,” by cookbook author Andrea Nguyen, from whose book, Into The Vietnamese Kitchen, I got these great recipes. It is very simple to make, and adds an amazing flavor to these ribs, much like the molasses or brown sugar used in American barbecue sauces. This recipe, however, did not include any heat (i.e. chilies), so I had to throw in 1 TBSP of cayenne powder during the marinating, and also a handful of green chilies during the actual cooking. For me, that kick made the dish a little more satisfying and complex than it probably would have been otherwise with only its sweet/savory taste. Though simple to make, this dish does require some prep—especially if you need to make the caramel sauce—but do not be dissuaded by a little work, The final results will be well worth the effort.
Pork Riblets Simmered In Caramel Sauce
3 pounds meaty pork spareribs (cut crosswise through the bone)
1/2 large yellow onion, minced
1 TBSP sugar
1TSP black pepper
6 TBSP fish sauce
6 TBSP caramel sauce
2 scallions, green parts only, chopped
1.) Cut each rib strip between the bones or cartilage into individual riblets. In a large bowl, combine the onion, sugar, pepper, and 3 TBSP fish sauce and mix well. Add the riblets and toss to coat evenly. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.
2.) Remove the bowl from the fridge about 45 minutes before use. Sear riblets on a hot charcoal fire, gas grill, or the broiler of your over for approximately 5 minutes a side, until lightly charred.
3.) Transfer the seared riblets, the reserved marinade and any cooking juices to a 5-quart Dutch oven or a 2-3 quart clay pot. Add the remaining 3 TBSP fish sauce, the caramel sauce and enough water to almost cover the riblets. Bring to a boil over medium heat, and then reduce heat and simmer for 45 minutes. Uncover and adjust hear so the riblets simmer vigorously. Cook an additional 20 minutes or until the riblets are tender when pierced with a knife. The sauce will have reduced but there will still be plenty.
4.) Remove from heat and let stand for a few minutes so that the fat collects on the surface, and then skim it off. Return to a simmer and taste the sauce. Add extra fish sauce to create a deeper savory flavor or water to lighten it. Transfer the riblets and sauce to a bowl. Sprinkle scallions on top and serve.
Serves 2-4 with rice and other dishes
Caramel Sauce (Nuóc Màu)
1.) Select a small, heavy saucepan with a long handle. Use one with a light interior (such as stainless steel) to make monitoring the changing color of the caramel easier. Fill the sink with enough water to come halfway up the sides of the saucepan.
2.) Place 1/4 cup of water and all the sugar in the saucepan over medium-low heat. To ensure that the sugar melts evenly, stir with a metal spoon. After about 2 minutes, when the sugar is relatively opaque, stop stirring and let the mixture cook undisturbed. Small bubbles will form at the edge of the pan and gradually grow larger and move toward the center. A good 7 minutes into cooking, bubbles will cover the entire surface and the mixture will be at a vigorous simmer. As the sugar melts, the mixture will go from opaque to clear. After about 15 minutes, the sugar will begin to caramelize and deepen in color. When smoke starts rising, remove the pan from the heat and slowly swirl it. The caramel should be the color of black coffee or molasses. Place the pan in the sink filled with water to stop the cooking. The hot pan bottom will sizzle on contact. Add the remaining 1/2-cup of water. After the dramatic bubbling reaction ceases, return the pan to the stove over medium heat.
3.) Dissolve the caramel by stirring continuously. Remove from heat and let cool for 10 minutes before pouring into a small, heatproof glass jar. Set aside to cool completely. The result will seem slightly viscous, while the flavor will be bittersweet. Cover the sauce and store indefinitely in your kitchen cupboard.
(makes about 1 cup)
Both recipes taken from Into The Vietnamese Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen