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Caramel Sauce (Nuoc Mau)

Time 35 minutes
Yields Makes 1 cup
Caramel Sauce (Nuoc Mau)
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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.

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.”

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.

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.

1

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.

2

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.

3

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.

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.