This Vietnamese Caramel Shrimp is sweet, salty and super delicious. It comes together quickly and the Pineapple Basil Salsa is a fresh, vibrant garnish!
A friend stopped by while we photographing this Vietnamese Caramel Shrimp with Pineapple Basil Salsa. I told her I had made "caramel shrimp". She wrinkled up her nose a bit and I realized that it sounded a little odd. I quickly explained that it was a Vietnamese-inspired dish and I think she was a little relieved. After the photoshoot, I sent her the picture below and she said she couldn't wait to try it.
What is "caramel" shrimp?
You might have thought the same thing when you saw the title of this recipe. In this case, it's not a sweet sauce you serve on ice cream or a cake topping. In Vietnamese cuisine, you'll find lots of savory "caramel" recipes. There's Caramel Chicken, Caramel Pork, Caramel Beef... even catfish and ribs get the "caramel' treatment! These are all delicious dishes that feature a sweet, salty sauce generally made with coconut water, caramelized white sugar and fish sauce as the main ingredients.
This Vietnamese Caramel Shrimp with Pineapple Basil Salsa is my "take" on this beloved Vietnamese dish. Instead of caramelizing white sugar, I sub a generous dose of brown sugar to achieve a similar flavor profile. I also use a splash of both fish sauce and soy sauce for the "salty" element, a scoop of fresh ginger, lots of garlic and the coconut water as the base and let it reduce to a sweet/savory, syrupy sauce. For a unique, fresh flavor contrast I love to serve this with a garnish of Pineapple Basil Salsa.
A quick, easy recipe
I love how quickly this Vietnamese Caramel Shrimp comes together and that a lot of the prep can be done ahead of time, making it perfect for busy weeknights, but also for entertaining. Here are the steps:
- Start with the shrimp - They don't need to be marinated. They just sit for a few minutes before sautéing with a simple rub while you prep the other ingredients.
- Next, combine the sauce ingredients; coconut water, brown sugar, fish sauce, soy sauce and chili garlic sauce. Set this aside.
- Get out a large sauté pan and melt 2 tablespoons of coconut. Add the shrimp and cook just until pink and lightly caramelized. Remove the shrimp to a plate.
- Now add a tablespoon of butter to the pan until melted and bubbly. The garlic and ginger only need a minute in the sizzling butter for the flavors to become fragrant and melded. Now add the sauce you've already prepped and bring it to a nice boil. Let it go for 7-10 minutes until it gets thickened and syrupy.
- Turn off the heat and return the shrimp to the pan. Stir gently to coat with the delicious sauce and you're ready to ring the dinner bell.
- Serve with basmati or jasmine rice, ramen noodles or even polenta (I know it's crossing nationalities but it's delicious!). Top with lots of fresh basil and enjoy!
I love to keep several bags of frozen shrimp in the freezer for quick, easy, DELICIOUS meals like this Vietnamese Caramel Shrimp. Hope you enjoy it as much as we have!
Cafe Tips for making this Vietnamese Caramel Shrimp with Pineapple Basil Salsa
- The larger the sauté pan you use for this recipe, the more evenly the shrimp will cook and the sauce will reduce more quickly.
- Don't hesitate to use a rapid boil to reduce the sauce. Do stay near the stove though to give it a frequent stir and to make sure it doesn't burn.
- This recipe calls for coconut water, not coconut milk. Coconut water is available at most grocery stores in the beverage aisle. It's usually stocked near the sparkling waters and/or the electrolyte waters like Gatorade. I have found it at my local small-town grocery, Aldi and even Super Walmart.
- Fresh ginger is one of the ingredients in this recipe. You can grate your own with a microplane grater or you can use prepared Ginger Paste. Ginger paste is available at many larger grocery stores, including Super Walmart and Super Target in the produce department, usually near the fresh herbs.
- One other ingredient you may not be familiar with is fish sauce. Fish sauce is a traditional Vietnamese condiment used in lots of different recipes. It has a salty "umami" flavor. It's important to the flavor profile of this Coconut Caramel Shrimp recipe and I promise there is no fishy taste. I really like Red Boat fish sauce which is available at lots of larger grocers and also online. Fish sauce has a really long shelf life (in the refrigerator after opening) so you don't have to worry about it going to waste.
- This recipe calls for chili garlic sauce which is a condiment often used in Asian cuisine. There's a shortage of my favorite chili garlic sauce right now, Huy Fong because of a failed "Mexican chili pepper crop). However, there are other brands available, like this Lee Kum Kee which is an acceptable substitute. Chili garlic sauce adds a touch of heat (not super spicy) to this recipe and another nice layer of flavor.
- Sometimes I add a handful of salted peanuts or cashews as a crunchy garnish for this Vietnamese Caramel Shrimp.
Thought for the day:
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draw near to the throne of grace,
that we may receive mercy
and find grace to help in time of need.
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This Vietnamese Caramel Shrimp is sweet, salty and super delicious. The fresh, vibrant Pineapple Basil Salsa comes together quickly!
- 2 cups coconut water
- ⅓ cup dark brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 2 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon chili garlic sauce or sambal oelek
- 1 teaspoon garlic salt
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons coconut oil
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 6 medium cloves garlic finely minced
- 1 tablespoon fresh ginger
- 1 ½ pounds large shrimp peeled and deveined
- 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice more to taste
- 1 teaspoon honey
- 1 ¾ cups diced fresh pineapple
- 2 mini cucumber ¼-inch dice (about 1 ¼ cups)
- ½ medium red onion finely diced
- 2 medium jalapenos seeds and ribs removed, finely diced
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil leaves
- fresh basil leaves
- lime wedges
- jasmine or basmati rice
- roasted, salted cashews or peanuts optional
Combine all caramel sauce ingredients in a medium size bowl and stir to combine. Set aside.
Combine all rub ingredients in a small bowl and stir to combine.
Pat the shrimp dry and spread it out on a plate or pan that has been lined with a sheet of parchment paper. Sprinkle half of the rub evenly over the shrimp then turn each one over and sprinkle the remaining rub on the other side.
In a large nonstick skillet melt the coconut oil over medium heat until nice and hot. Add the shrimp and spread out to a single layer. Cook for 1-1 ½ minutes or until just beginning to curl, then flip to the other side and cook for another minute until pink all over. Remove the shrimp from the pan to a clean plate.
Add the 1 tablespoon of butter to the pan and cook over medium low heat until melted. Add the garlic and ginger and cook for 1 more minute, stirring frequently. Then add the reserved caramel sauce and bring the mixture to a boil.
Cook for 7-10 minutes, stirring frequently, until the sauce is thickened and syrupy. Turn off the heat and add the shrimp, stirring gently to coat the shrimp with the caramel mixture. Serve with jasmine or basmati rice and the pineapple basil salsa.
While the sauce is simmering, prepare the salsa by combining the lime juice and honey in a medium size bowl. Stir to combine then add remaining salsa ingredients and stir gently. Taste add additional lime juice or honey if preferred.
Serve with jasmine or basmati rice, ramen or rice noodles, lime wedges and a generous scatter of fresh basil, either Thai basil (preferred) or regular sweet basil. For a unique twist, it’s also delicious over polenta!
Sometimes we also add a scatter of salted peanuts or cashews for a crunchy topping, so good!
See Café Tips above in the post for more detailed instructions and tips to ensure success.
If you prefer to use Metric measurements there is a button in each of our recipes, right above the word “Instructions”. Just click that button to toggle to grams, milliliters, etc. If you ever come across one of our recipes that doesn’t have the Metric conversion (some of the older recipes may not), feel free to leave a comment and I will add it.