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Asian Alchemy

Vietnamese cooks transform sugar into spicy, savory caramel sauce.

By Adam Ried
March 15, 2009
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Braising fish, poultry, and meat in a deep-amber burnished caramel sauce is a classic Vietnamese cooking technique. But banish thoughts of caramel as a sticky-sweet confection. Vietnamese cooks have a completely different take on it, transforming the sugar, along with fish sauce, water, and black pepper, into deeply flavored, savory, salty-sweet sauces. Sweetness is just a minor note in the complex panoply of flavors.

Vietnamese-style Caramel Braised Fish

Serves 6

Notice there is no salt in the recipe -- the fish sauce provides plenty. Serve with steamed rice.

2 tablespoons fish sauce (nuoc mam or nam pla)

2 large shallots, finely chopped (about 2/3 cup)

3 medium cloves garlic, minced (about 1 tablespoon)

1½ teaspoons black pepper

¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes

1/3 cup plus ½ teaspoon sugar

2 pounds catfish, large fillets cut in half crosswise

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice, or more to taste, plus lime wedges for serving

3 scallions, thinly sliced

¼ cup chopped cilantro

In a small bowl, mix fish sauce with 1/3 cup water and set aside. In another small bowl, mix shallots, garlic, black pepper, and red pepper, and set aside.

Pour 1/3 cup water into a very large, heavy skillet, then pour 1/3 cup sugar into center of water. Set the pan over medium heat and heat, swirling pan once or twice to evenly moisten sugar, until sugar melts, about 1½ minutes. Cook, gently swirling pan occasionally and more often as sugar browns, until evenly caramelized and copper colored, about 12 minutes (mixture may smoke). Remove from heat and, standing back to avoid spatters, slowly add fish-sauce mixture; swirl pan to combine. Return to medium heat, and bring to boil. Add shallot mixture and cook, stirring occasionally, until shallots soften, about 1½ minutes. Add fillets with as little overlap as possible, reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and braise until fish is just cooked through, about 10 minutes, carefully turning fillets over halfway through braising time. Transfer fish to serving platter and cover loosely with foil. Increase heat to high, add remaining ½ teaspoon sugar, bring to boil, and cook, stirring occasionally, until juices are reduced, about 3 minutes. Add lime juice and accumulated juices from fish on platter and stir to mix. Taste, adjust seasoning with lime juice if necessary, pour over fish, sprinkle with scallions and cilantro, and serve at once with lime wedges.

Vietnamese-style Caramel Braised Pork Patties

Serves 6 (3 patties each)

Serve with steamed rice.

1/3 cup packed tamarind pulp (about 3½ ounces)

¼ cup fish sauce (nuoc mam or nam pla)

5 large shallots, finely chopped (about 2 cups)

3 fresh hot serrano or Thai bird chilies, about 3 inches long, seeded if desired, and minced (about 2 tablespoons)

01 tablespoon black pepper

2 tablespoons canola oil

3 medium cloves garlic, minced (about 1 tablespoon)

3 pounds ground pork

1/3 cup plus ½ teaspoon sugar

3 scallions, thinly sliced

In a small saucepan over medium heat bring tamarind and ½ cup water to a simmer, mashing pulp with a wooden spoon, and cook for about 4 minutes. Off heat, steep pulp until completely softened, about 15 minutes. Strain into small bowl, pressing on solids (you should have about 1/3 cup puree). Keep at room temperature until ready to use.

In a small bowl, mix 2 tablespoons fish sauce with ½ cup water and set aside. In another small bowl, mix about 2/3 cup of chopped shallots, 2 teaspoons of minced chilies, and 1½ teaspoons black pepper, and reserve.

In a very large, heavy skillet, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add remaining 11/3 cups chopped shallots, stir to coat, reduce heat to medium, and cook, stirring frequently, until they begin to soften, about 2 minutes. Add remaining 4 teaspoons minced chilies and the garlic, stir to mix, and cook until fragrant, about 40 seconds; set aside off heat to cool.

In a large bowl, place pork, remaining 2 tablespoons fish sauce, remaining 1½ teaspoons black pepper, and the cooked shallot mixture and blend well. With hands, form a generous ¼ cup of the meat mixture into a patty about 2½ inches in diameter and 1 inch thick; repeat to make 18 patties. Return pan to burner, set heat to medium-high, add remaining 1 tablespoon oil, and heat until shimmering. Add half the patties in a single layer (don't crowd), reduce heat to medium, and cook without moving them until golden brown on the bottom, about 3½ minutes. Turn patties and cook until second side is golden brown, about 3½ minutes longer; transfer to a platter. Repeat with remaining patties (reducing the heat if necessary). Discard fat and clean pan well.

Pour 1/3 cup water into the pan, then pour 1/3 cup sugar into the center of the water. Set the skillet over medium heat and heat, swirling the pan once or twice to evenly moisten the sugar, until the sugar melts, about 1½ minutes. Cook, gently swirling pan occasionally and more often as sugar browns, until evenly caramelized and copper colored, about 12 minutes (mixture may smoke). Remove pan from heat and, standing back to avoid spatters, slowly add fish-sauce mixture; swirl pan to combine. Return to medium heat and bring to boil, about 1 minute. Add the reserved uncooked shallot-chili mixture and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until shallots soften, about 1½ minutes. Add 3 tablespoons tamarind puree and the pork patties, reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and braise until pork is cooked through, about 20 minutes, turning patties over halfway through braising time. Transfer patties to a serving platter and cover loosely with foil. Off heat, spoon off as much fat as possible from sauce. Return skillet to high heat, add remaining tamarind puree and ½ teaspoon sugar, stir to mix, bring to boil, and cook, stirring occasionally, until sauce reduces slightly, about 2 minutes. Pour sauce over patties, sprinkle with scallions, and serve at once.

Send comments or suggestions to Adam Ried at cooking@globe.com.

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