Do you have a dictionary nearby? Grab it – and if you have a minute to look up “fresh-delicious-and-vibrant” I’m quite certain you’ll see something similar to these Vietnamese Caramelized Pork Salad Bowls. In all fairness though, I do have to warn you!
Once you try this fabulous cuisine, you’ll find yourself craving it again and again. And that’s precisely how this recipe came into being.
I called my daughter-in-law, one day and asked if she was up for lunch at our favorite little Vietnamese restaurant. We don’t get there frequently, since it’s on the opposite side of town, but it’s definitely worth the drive when we have the time. Lindsay didn’t hesitate, so we made a date.
Our lunch did not disappoint. It was fabulous and, had you been a little mouse in the restaurant that day, you would have laughed your little furry head off at the two women ooh-ing, aah-ing and mmm-ing over each bite of their lunch.
Vietnamese food is so fresh and vibrant, it really is hard to not crave it once you’ve experienced it. It’s sweet, salty, spicy, crunchy, hot, cold and bursting with multiple layers of deliciousness. When I got home that day, my mind was spinning with ideas for recreating some of those wonderful taste sensations in my own little kitchen.
I decided to go with Vietnamese Caramelized Pork as it’s been a longtime favorite of mine. But then, what’s not to love about tender, bite-size pieces of pork in a deeply caramelized, sweet, spicy, salty sauce. I looked up a few recipes, and even watched a You Tube video on how to make caramelized pork. It didn’t seem too complicated, so I picked up a few ingredients and got to work.
I started out with pork shoulder, because that’s what all the authentic Vietnamese recipes use. It was fabulous, super tender and full of flavor. The only problem was the fact that pork shoulder is quite marbled with fat and after simmering the meat in the delicious sauce, much of that fat, was now in my sauce. I was looking for something a bit healthier, so there I was, back at the drawing board.
I picked up some pork tenderloin and tried substituting this leaner cut of meat for the pork shoulder. That didn’t work so well. The lean pork got too dry and a little tough after simmering in the sauce. I even tried adding it at the very end of the cooking time but still it wasn’t great.
I wasn’t about to give up though, and finally, I found the magic solution. I made the sauce and pork separately, roasting the pork tenderloin in the oven to the perfect temperature, allowing it to rest, then slicing it thin and slipping it into the fragrant, ginger and lemongrass-scented sauce.
Most authentic recipes for Vietnamese Caramelized Pork have just a few ingredients; sugar (which is melted and caramelized – hence the name), fish sauce, water, shallots, and pork. I omitted the shallots and added a few other favorite Asian ingredients: garlic, ginger, lemongrass and a splash of Sriracha for a touch of spiciness.
I felt, for a while, that I was never going to get it right and poor Scott endured a few not-so-stellar Vietnamese Caramelized Pork dinners. It’s just right now though, and all ready for you!
I like to serve it over jasmine rice or rice noodles and pair it with lots of fresh veggies. The toppings can be quite adaptable, depending on what you like and what’s fresh and pretty at the market. Our favorites are shredded carrots, sliced cucumbers, avocado, peanuts and lots of fresh herbs. Traditional Vietnamese herbs are cilantro, mint and basil.
There’s a traditional Vietnamese dipping sauce that I like to drizzle over the veggies. It’s called nuoc cham (pronounced noo-ahk CHAHM) and is made from fish sauce, lime juice, garlic and chili peppers. It adds a bright, fresh authentic layer of delicious flavor to these Vietnamese Caramelized Pork Salad Bowls.
If you enjoy Asian food, I think you’ll love this recipe. Both the sauce and the pork can be made in advance and then combined together just before serving. I have a sneaking suspicion that, if there’s a little mouse in your house, he/she would be laughing as you and your family/friends ooh, aah and mmm your way through this meal too!
P.S. Since this post started out with a warning, I’ll end it with one too…
Both the pork and the nuoc cham dipping sauce contain fish sauce which can usually be purchased in the Asian section of larger grocery stores. If you’ve never cooked with fish sauce, it
kind of really stinks, straight from the bottle. But it adds delicious, almost mysterious flavor to many Vietnamese and Thai dishes, not the slightest bit “fish-y”. Don’t skip it, just don’t take a big whiff!
I just recently tried Red Boat Fish Sauce. I’d read in several cooking magazines how wonderful it was, and had heard several chefs recommend it. I decided to find out if all the hype was true. I asked the Vietnamese girl who does my nails (and enjoys cooking) which fish sauce was the best. Without hesitation, she said “Red Boat!” That sold me!
It’s not easy to find Red Boat Fish Sauce sauce, unless you have a Vietnamese store nearby. Even my large Asian market didn’t carry it as they seem to cater more to Chinese cuisine. I was able to order it though from Amazon (where it also had great reviews from customers). It arrived in two days and I must say, I’ve been very pleased with it.
- For the dipping sauce (nuoc cham):
- 1 clove garlic minced
- 1 teaspoon ground chile paste
- 2/3 cup hot water
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 3 tablespoons fish sauce my favorite
- 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- 1 teaspoon finely sliced cilantro stems optional
- For the pork:
- 2 pounds pork tenderloin
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 scant teaspoon garlic salt don't season too much as the sauce is well seasoned
- fresh ground black pepper
- For the sauce:
- ¾ cup sugar
- 1 cup water
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce my favorite
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh ginger
- 2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh lemongrass
- 2 teaspoons Sriracha chili sauce
- 4 cups cooked jasmine rice Perfect Jasmine Rice - every time!
- 2 cups shredded carrots
- 1 medium English seedless cucumber, thinly sliced
- 1 large ripe avocado
- cilantro sprigs
- mint leaves
- Make the dipping sauce by combining all ingredients in a medium-size glass jar. Shake well till sugar is completely dissolved then set aside.
- Preheat oven to 500˚F. Line a sheet pan with foil for easy clean up.
- Rub pork tenderloin all over with olive oil. Season lightly with garlic salt and freshly ground black pepper. Place on sheet pan. If you have two tenderloins, make sure they're not touching.
- Roast for 12 minutes then remove from oven and flip tenderloins to opposite side. (I like to use tongs for this.) Return to oven and continue cooking another 10-15 minutes or until internal temperature reads 145-150˚F*.
- Tent pork loosely with foil and allow to rest for 10 minutes. Slice meat thinly, about 1/4 inch thick. If making ahead, wrap meat tightly in foil and refrigerate till ready to use.
- For the sauce, place sugar in a heavy bottom sauce pan over medium heat. After a couple minutes sugar will start melting and turning amber at the edges. Stir several times to prevent sugar from burning. Cook until sugar is completely melted and is deep amber colored. Be careful at this point because it can go from amber to black (burned) quickly.
- Add water, fish sauce, soy sauce, ginger, lemongrass and Sriracha, stir to combine and bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat to a steady constant simmer and cook until liquid is reduced, thick and syrupy. This will take anywhere from 15-25 minutes. You are looking for a consistency similar to molasses in order for it to coat the pork.
- Add the pork to the hot sauce and gently stir. I like to add one piece of the pork and stir to coat it. If the sauce is not clinging to the pork, it's too thin. Just simmer it a bit longer to reduce and thicken.
- To serve, divide rice between 6 bowls. Arrange pork, carrots, cucumbers, avocado, peanuts and herbs decoratively on top of rice. Drizzle veggies with Nuoc Cham (Vietnamese dipping sauce). Enjoy!
* Do use a thermometer when you roast the pork. If it's overdone it will be tough and dry. Scott got this one for Christmas. It had 945 5-star reviews on Amazon and we are super pleased with it. It's very simple to use. You don't have to have a fancy one though, you can buy inexpensive ones that also work well. A thermometer like this is a lifesaver in the kitchen!