These crazy-delicious Vietnamese Caramel Pork Lettuce Wraps make a fresh, light weeknight meal and are also perfect for a dinner party.
It would be a difficult decision, but if I was forced to choose my favorite international cuisine, Vietnamese would be right there at the top. These Vietnamese Caramel Pork Lettuce Wraps are the perfect example of everything I love about this far east fare; they're fresh, healthy, full of vibrant flavor and beautiful!
I've been tweaking these Vietnamese Caramel Pork Lettuce Wraps for several months now and they're finally ready for you. I tried this recipe in the instant pot but found that the stovetop method actually worked better and honestly, didn't take much longer. After 4 or 5 rounds, the flavor is just right: a combination of sweet and salty, with a bit of heat and tons of wonderful flavor.
The recipe I adapted them from calls for the meat to be cut larger and served in bowls with rice, which is also delicious, but my favorite way to serve this incredibly delicious pork is diced small, with lots of fresh veggies and Jasmine rice. Wrapped up in large tender leaves of butter (or bib) lettuce it makes a fabulous light dinner.
Does making Vietnamese Caramel Pork sound complicated? It's not! It's all done on the stove top with no searing mess. I'm funny about getting my stove top all messed up and love that this recipe is mess-free.
Hands off stovetop cooking
How does it work? Just combine brown sugar and water in a large pan. Heat until the sugar is melted and bubbly, just a few minutes. Then add the diced pork along with shallots, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, fish sauce, chili garlic sauce and coconut water. Bring the whole works to a boil then reduce to a simmer and let it do its own thing! It will take at least an hour for the pork to get nice and tender. The good news is that its hands-off time. That means you can be doing your own thing too!
It's fun to see the transformation in the final minutes of cooking as the pork goes from pale brown to a beautiful deep, mahogany hue as the meat does its magical caramelization.
What is coconut water?
Not to be confused with coconut milk, coconut water is the clear liquid found in the center of a green, young coconut. It has a crisp, clean, slightly sweet and slightly salty taste. Coconut water is rich in nutrients and lower in calories than coconut milk. It will leave your guests wondering “Hhhmmm…what's that wonderful flavor?”
Coconut water can be found in either the beverage section, the area where sports drinks are stocked or the international aisle. I often find it in the Latin/Mexican aisle.
What kind of veggies to serve in these Vietnamese Caramel Pork Lettuce Wraps?
The sky's really the limit! This time I used shaved red cabbage, shredded carrots and thinly sliced Persian cucumbers. Other ideas are spring onions, Nappa cabbage, bean sprouts, strips of bell pepper, daikon radish, avocado and pea pods A garnish of chopped, salted peanuts and thinly sliced spicy peppers add crunch and a little heat.
I also love to serve a bowl of sweet and spicy (just a bit of heat) peanut sauce with these lettuce wraps. It adds another fabulous flavor dimension and pairs so nicely with the crunchy veggies and tender meat. This delicious 5-Minute Easy Peanut Sauce is my favorite - and truly does take just 5 minutes!
Café Tips for making these Vietnamese Caramel Pork Lettuce Wraps
- This recipe calls for pork shoulder or pork butt. I like to buy boneless pork shoulder ribs rather than a whole pork shoulder or butt. The ribs are much easier to handle and often the butcher has already trimmed some of the fat. If you can't find them, check with your butcher.
- I like to wait till one of my local groceries has the shoulder ribs on sale and then stock up as they freeze well.
- Pork shoulder, butt and/or the boneless ribs I mentioned above are all fattier cuts of meat. Trim off the large portions of fat. It's important, however, to leave some fat as this will keep the meat nice and tender over the extended cooking time.
- The peanut sauce recipe will make more than you need for these Vietnamese Caramel Pork Lettuce Wraps but you'll find lots of other ways to use it. It's fabulous as a sauce for grilled chicken, pork or shrimp and makes a wonderful dipping sauce for veggies.
- Lettuce wraps can be a bit messy to eat. We've found doubling up two lettuce leaves makes a sturdier wrap and less of the delicious fillings fall out.
- Be sure to let the pork get nice and brown at the end but watch it carefully and stir frequently as you don't want it to burn.
- After cooking for one hour, the liquid should be reduced and the pork nice and tender. If the pork is not tender at this point, just add ¼-1/2 cup water and cook a little longer.
- This Vietnamese Caramel Pork recipe calls for fish sauce. If you've never used fish sauce, don't let it scare you. It doesn't have a wonderful aroma, to put it mildly. But it adds wonderful authentic flavor and the finished product doesn't taste "fishy" in the slightest. Buy a good quality fish sauce. It will keep just about forever in the fridge. I really like the Red Boat brand.
These crazy-delicious lettuce wraps make a fresh, light weeknight meal and are also perfect for a dinner party.
- ½ cup dark brown sugar tightly packed
- 1 tablespoon water
- 1 ½ cups coconut water
- 2 medium-size shallots halved lengthwise and sliced very thin
- 3 garlic cloves finely minced
- 2 tablespoons finely grated fresh ginger
- ¼ cup soy sauce
- 1 ½ tablespoons fish sauce
- 2-3 teaspoons chili garlic sauce
- 2 ½ pounds trimmed pork shoulder cut into ½-inch pieces
- 2 cups finely sliced red cabbage
- 2-3 Persian cucumbers small seedless cucumbers thinly sliced
- 2 cups shredded carrots
- Boston, bib or butter lettuce leaves
- chopped salted peanuts
- 5-minute Easy Peanut Sauce
For the Caramel Pork:
Combine brown sugar and water in a large pot over medium-high heat. Stir until combined. Once mixture begins to bubble, continue cooking for 2-3 minutes, stirring frequently.
Add remaining ingredients, stir and bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat to maintain a steady, simmer. Simmer for 60-70 minutes uncovered, stirring every 15 minutes until the liquid has reduced and the pork is tender.
Continue to cook at this point, stirring frequently until the pork reaches a deep caramel color and most of the liquid is gone and pork is glazed.
Serve with shredded carrots, thinly sliced red cabbage, thinly sliced cucumbers, Boston, bob or butter lettuce, chopped peanuts and peanut sauce.
See Café Tips for detailed instructions and tips.
Recipe adapted from Recipe Tin Eats
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