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The Taste of Tet

For many people, Vietnamese cuisine means a big bowl of pho and a couple of spring rolls, those delicious and ubiquitous standards of noodle shops and takeout joints. But for folks like me--raised and fed by Vietnamese parents--the salty-sweet flavors of a mahogany-colored kho dish best capture the Vietnamese food experience.

And as the Tet lunar New Year celebration approaches--it begins Tuesday--I’ve got kho on my mind.

Kho dishes occupy a central spot in the Vietnamese culinary consciousness. In fact, it’s hard to be Viet without serving and/or eating kho at your table. Growing up in San Clemente, my cultural heritage was reinforced at dinnertime. While my friends dove into tuna casseroles, I spooned my mother’s heady kho into bowls of white rice.

For traditionalists like my parents, who spent most of their lives in Vietnam, kho remains an integral part of their daily routine. Whenever I go to their house, there’s a kho cooking on the stove or sitting in the fridge, just waiting to be served.

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What exactly is kho? As a noun, kho means a type of dish that is the ultimate in Vietnamese comfort food--a stew in which the delicate sweetness of a light caramel offsets the vibrant saltiness of fish sauce.

Aside from being a whole category of food, kho is also a verb that means to simmer, braise or stew something. In the main, when someone says, “I’m kho-ing something,” you can bet that they’re cooking up home-style food in a caramel-based sauce.

Originally, kho (pronounced “kaw”) dishes were made by simmering meat, seafood or tofu with fish sauce, sugar and water in clay pots. Most modern Vietnamese cooks use metal saucepans and employ nuoc mau (“nook mao”), a caramel sauce that deepens the overall color and flavor. Literally it means “colored water.” In the north, people call the same ingredient nuoc hang (“nook hahng”), literally “merchandising water,” probably because it was so often used by food hawkers to enhance the appearance of their wares.

A typical Vietnamese meal consists of rice, kho, a stir-fry and soup. “You can leave out the stir-fry and the soup, but you can’t forget the kho,” my dad says. “There’s always plenty of rice, and you have to eat it with something salty.”

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To prepare a basic kho dish, you simply place all the ingredients in a saucepan and let them cook until the meat juices have exuded and combined well with the other elements, and the overall color is as reddish-brown as dark honey. Creative cooks can doll things up by grilling or briefly sauteing the meat or fish before simmering it with the caramel sauce and other ingredients. If it isn’t naturally present, a little fat or oil is added for richness.

Though the color darkens slightly overnight, kho dishes reheat beautifully, so Vietnamese cooks often prepare large quantities with leftovers in mind.

Kho dishes originated before refrigeration was available in Vietnam and cooks needed to preserve food to accompany the mainstay of their diet, rice. To that end, they infused food with the saltiness of fish sauce, their beloved condiment. But things cooked in pure fish sauce were overly salty, so sugar was added to balance the flavor.

Still, the color wasn’t quite right, so they started experimenting and eventually adopted the practice of caramelizing the sugar into an inky, bittersweet sauce (think black coffee or molasses). Diluted during cooking, the dark red cast of this caramel sauce imparts a beautiful color. The use of nuoc mau negated the need to add sugar to the sauce, though some cooks still do. The caramel’s bittersweet edge also helps counter the saltiness of the fish sauce and brings out the savory aspects of whatever is being cooked.

A kho made with a caramel-based sauce is rich in flavor and lush in texture. Because kho is such an important part of a Vietnamese cook’s repertoire, nuoc mau is a staple in the Vietnamese kitchen, where it’s made in large batches and stored in a jar, usually kept in the cupboard. Just spoon some into a saucepan with all the other ingredients and you’re ready to go. Some cooks add ginger, hot chile peppers, galangal or whole peppercorns for extra pizazz.

As with any dish that is so simple, the quality of the ingredients is important. Fish sauce, in particular, varies depending on the manufacturer and country of origin. Tiparos brand, which is widely available, is produced in the Thai style, which means that it’s heavier and saltier. Vietnamese-style fish sauce (Viet Huong/3 Crabs is my favorite brand--it’s made in Thailand but to the Vietnamese taste) is lighter and a bit sweet because some fructose is usually added.

Traditional Vietnamese cooks such as my mother keep a Tiparos-type of fish sauce around for cooking (it’s cheaper) and use the more delicate Vietnamese-style fish sauce (“more expensive” at about $2.49 a bottle) to make their dipping sauces.

It’s like the differences between grades of olive oil and how they may be used in different applications. If I had to choose only one brand of fish sauce to keep in my kitchen, I’d go for the 3 Crabs; it’s widely available in Chinese, pan-Asian and Vietnamese markets. Vietnam is exporting some good stuff these days too, like Pigeon brand, which is primarily available at Vietnamese markets.

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Most kho dishes can be made very quickly. The pork riblets are an exception--they’re marinated and then broiled or grilled before simmering, which gives them a wonderfully complex roastiness at the price of more time. Still, I kho these riblets around Tet every year as a reminder of the traditional festivities (surrounding the annual slaughter of a pig), which can go on for weeks.

Since you’re supposed to avoid work and have fun during Tet, my mother’s family would kho their pork ribs for eating throughout the celebration alongside other traditional foods. With the Year of the Horse starting Tuesday, I’m rounding up my riblets and reaching for my jar of caramel sauce.

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Cover photo and above: tray and plates from Yuzu, Pasadena.

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Caramel Sauce (Nuoc Mau)

Active Work Time: 5 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 35 minutes

The traditional method of making this sauce requires that you add boiling water to the caramelized sugar, which kicks off a dramatic reaction that’s not for the faint of heart. The point of doing this is to arrest the cooking process so that the sugar doesn’t burn to a bitter black stage. I find it easier to place the pan bottom in a sink filled with water. This cools the caramel down so that when you add the remaining water, there’s little drama left. The result of both approaches is the same bittersweet inky sauce that’s a staple in every Vietnamese kitchen.

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1 cup sugar

3/4 cup water, divided

Fill the sink with enough water to come halfway up the side of a 1-quart, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Place the sugar and 1/4 cup of the water into the saucepan and cook over medium-low heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves, about 2 to 3 minutes. As the sugar melts, the mixture will go from opaque to clear. Small bubbles will form at the edge and gradually grow larger, moving toward the center of the pan. Eventually, bubbles will cover the entire surface.

After about 15 minutes, the sugar will begin to caramelize and turn in color. You’ll see a progression from champagne yellow to light tea to dark tea. When smoke starts rising, remove the saucepan from the heat and slowly swirl it around. Watch the sugar closely as it will turn darker by the second; a reddish cast will set in (think the color of a big and bold red wine) as the bubbles become a lovely burnt orange. Pay attention to the color of the caramel underneath the bubbles. When the caramel color is that of black coffee or molasses, place the pan in the sink to stop the cooking process. The hot pan bottom will sizzle upon contact and the bubble action will subside.

Add the remaining 1/2 cup of water (there may be a small dramatic reaction) and place the saucepan back on the stove over medium heat, stirring until the caramel has dissolved into the water. The result will be slightly viscous; flavor-wise, it will be bittersweet. Pour the caramel sauce into a small glass jar and let it cool; it will thicken further. Store indefinitely in your kitchen cupboard.

1 cup. Each tablespoon: 39 calories; 0 sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 10 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0 fiber.

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Chicken and Ginger in Caramel Sauce (Ga Kho)

Active Work Time: 10 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 30 minutes

This is a very straightforward northern Vietnamese preparation. I’ve read recipes from the central and southern Vietnamese regions that include garlic and chiles, and that saute the chicken with aromatics before simmering. While there’s bound to be more complex flavors in those versions, the beauty of this recipe lies in its simplicity. This preparation shows off the ease of making a kho dish and the delectability of the results.

The chicken exudes its juices during cooking, which adds extra savoriness to the sauce. The ginger softens and mellows, blending in with the other ingredients while still retaining its jolting quality. To crush the ginger, place the flat side of a knife blade on each slice and give the blade a firm whack with the palm of your hand. Crushing the ginger releases more of its juices during cooking, thereby mitigating its bite.

Traditionally, the chicken was left on the bone with the skin attached. You’d cut the chicken pieces up and simmer the ingredients into an unctuous kho. My mother used to simmer chicken wings and what I jokingly called “chicken knees” (the bony knob ends of the drumsticks that she’d cut off as she butchered chickens and save in the freezer). For the sake of ease and health considerations, I now use boneless skinless chicken thighs.

1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch chunks

1 (2-inch) piece ginger root, peeled, thinly sliced into quarter-size coins and crushed

3 tablespoons Caramel Sauce

2 tablespoons fish sauce

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons water

1 green onion, green tops only, chopped

Steamed rice, for serving

Place the chicken, ginger, Caramel Sauce, fish sauce, salt and water into a saucepan. Give a stir to distribute everything. Cover and bring to a strong simmer over medium heat. Stir again to break up the chicken pieces, then replace the lid. Cook for 10 minutes, periodically stirring to evenly expose the chicken to the sauce. The kho will send fragrant steam out from under the lid. The sauce will increase in volume as the chicken releases its juices.

After the 10 minutes are up, remove the lid and continue cooking to reduce the sauce and deepen the color to a rich reddish brown, about 5 minutes. Replace the lid and allow it to rest for 5 minutes. Taste the sauce and adjust the flavor with extra fish sauce, if necessary. Garnish with the chopped green onion and serve with plenty of rice.

4 servings. Each serving, without rice: 362 calories; 631 mg sodium; 148 mg cholesterol; 17 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 8 grams carbohydrates; 41 grams protein; 0.07 gram fiber.

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Shrimp in Caramel Sauce (Tom Kho)

Active Work Time: 15 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 25 minutes

This simple dish exemplifies how the Vietnamese kho method of cooking sends an already tasty ingredient such as shrimp into a new dimension. Nowadays, it seems uncouth to overcook seafood. However, in this application, the longer cooking allows all the flavors to thoroughly penetrate the shrimp. Unlike other kho dishes, this recipe doesn’t ask you to sweat the juices out by covering the pan with a lid; shrimp is delicate and requires faster “open” cooking to concentrate the flavors. The onions should practically disintegrate into the sauce. Adding the oil at the end lends a bit of extra richness; traditionally more lard or oil was added than prescribed here to also give an appetizing sheen to the shrimp.

This may seem like a lot of shrimp for four, but I’ve observed my friends snap these guys up like crazy, sometimes even eating them without rice.

1 1/2 pounds medium shrimp (31-40 count), peeled and deveined

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce

2 tablespoons Caramel Sauce

1/2 yellow onion, thinly sliced

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1 1/2 tablespoons oil

1 green onion, green tops only, chopped

Steamed rice, for serving

Place the shrimp, salt, fish sauce and Caramel Sauce into a shallow saucepan. Bring to a vigorous simmer over high heat. Add the yellow onion and pepper, stirring to evenly distribute. Continue cooking over high heat, occasionally turning the shrimp so that they’re well coated with sauce. They’ll curl up and release their juices to combine with the other ingredients and concentrate into a dark sauce. Add a little water if things get too dry.

The shrimp are done when they’ve taken on an orange-brown color and have a pleasant sweet chewiness, about 8 to 10 minutes after you’ve added the onion and pepper. There will be a few tablespoons of sauce in the pan. Remove from the heat, add the oil and stir to coat the shrimp. Scatter the green onion on top and serve with lots of steamed rice.

4 servings. Each serving, without rice: 229 calories; 725 mg sodium; 276 mg cholesterol; 7 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 10 grams carbohydrates; 31 grams protein; 0.58 gram fiber.

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Pork Riblets Simmered in Caramel Sauce (Suon Kho)

Active Work Time: 15 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 1/2 hours plus 2 hours marinating

Traditionally, the riblets were grilled over charcoal to sear in the flavors before simmering. In our family, we take an easier route by broiling them. I’ve presented all the options below. Here are some additional things to note: Ask a butcher to cut the ribs, as this is not an easy home project. To remove the fat, the ribs may be prepared a day ahead and refrigerated. The congealed fat can be easily lifted off the surface. The onions may be prepped in a mini-chopper.

2 pounds meaty pork spareribs, cut crosswise through the bone into 2-inch-wide strips

1/3 cup minced, grated or pureed yellow onion, about 1/2 small onion

1 tablespoon sugar

3/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1/4 cup fish sauce, divided

1/4 cup Caramel Sauce

1 green onion, green top only, chopped

Steamed rice, for serving

Cut each rib strip between the bones or through the cartilage into individual riblets. Combine the onion, sugar, pepper and 2 tablespoons of the fish sauce in a bowl. Add the riblets, cover with plastic wrap and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours or overnight.

If necessary, adjust your broiler rack so that the ribs will cook as close to the flame as possible. Heat the broiler for 30 minutes to get it nice and hot.

While the broiler heats up, take the ribs from the refrigerator and let them sit at room temperature to take the chill off. Place them on a baking sheet and broil until they’re tinged brown, about 4 to 6 minutes per side; a little charring is fine. (You’ll hear a pleasant sizzle as this happens.) Alternatively, cook the ribs over high heat on a gas or charcoal grill, which imparts deeper flavor. The point here is to sear the riblets to obtain a roastiness and intensify the overall color.

Place the riblets in a saucepan with the Caramel Sauce, the remaining 2 tablespoons of fish sauce and enough water (about 2 1/2 cups) to cover most of the riblets. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat to simmer. Cover and let cook for 40 minutes; the ribs should simmer vigorously, sending steam out from under the lid.

Remove the lid and continue to simmer until the ribs are tender (you can easily pierce the meat with a fork or knife tip), about 20 to 30 minutes. If there’s cartilage, you should be able to bite through it, with a slight crunch remaining. This latter phase of cooking allows the sauce to reduce and concentrate in flavor, and deepens the color to dark reddish brown. In the end, there should be a fair amount of sauce left.

Turn off the heat, tilt the saucepan so the liquid goes to one side and use a spoon or small ladle to skim the fat from the top. Adjust the flavors with extra fish sauce, if necessary. Garnish with the chopped green onion and serve with lots of steamed rice.

4 servings. Each serving, without rice: 429 calories; 773 mg sodium; 104 mg cholesterol; 26 grams fat; 9 grams saturated fat; 20 grams carbohydrates; 27 grams protein; 0.36 gram fiber.


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