This tender, flavorful Vietnamese Caramelized Pork, made with lean pork tenderloin, is much healthier than the classic Asian take-out favorite.
To be honest, I don't go back and make many of my own recipes very often. It's not because I don't like them, it's just that there are always scads of new recipes bubbling up in my brain that I have to try. Sadly, there isn't enough time in the day to make the old favorites as well as creating new ones. But this Vietnamese Caramelized Pork is definitely an exception. I find myself craving it quite frequently!
Fresh, Vibrant, Flavorful!
When I think of Vietnamese food, the words "fresh", "vibrant" and "flavorful" come to mind. With sweet, salty, spicy, crunchy, hot and cold components, it has multiple layers of deliciousness!
Vietnamese Caramelized Pork has been a longtime favorite choice when dining at Vietnamese restaurants and as a take-out dish. But then, what's not to love about tender, bite-size pieces of pork in a deeply caramelized, sweet, spicy, salty sauce? I thought it would be wonderful to enjoy this ethnic specialty at home so I set out to come up with my own recipe.
Pork shoulder vs pork tenderloin
I started out with pork shoulder for my recipe because that's what all the authentic Vietnamese recipes use. The result was fabulous, super tender and full of flavor. The only problem was the fact that pork shoulder is marbled with fat and after simmering the meat in the delicious sauce, much of that fat was now in my sauce. I wanted something a bit healthier and decided to try some other options.
I picked up several pork tenderloins and tried substituting this leaner cut of meat for the pork shoulder with the same recipe. That didn't work so well. The lean pork was dry and tough after simmering in the sauce. I tried adding it at the very end of the cooking time but we didn't care for the results.
I wasn't about to give up though and finally, after a number of attempts, 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. This method not only produced delicious results it's also easily adapted to a make-ahead meal.
Savory caramel 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 classic Vietnamese ingredients: ginger, lemongrass and a splash of chili garlic sauce.
There's a traditional Vietnamese dipping sauce that we 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's optional but adds another bright, fresh authentic layer of delicious flavor. I've included the recipe for nuoc cham below in the recipe notes.
If you enjoy Asian food, I think you'll love this Vietnamese Caramelized Pork. Both the sauce and the meat can be made in advance and then combined just before serving. Expect lots of oohs, aahs and mmms as your family/guests enjoy this meal!
Café Tips for making this Vietnamese Caramelized Pork
- I like to serve my Vietnamese Caramelized Pork over jasmine rice or rice noodles and top it with lots of fresh veggies. The toppings can be quite variable, depending on what you like and what's fresh and pretty at the market. Our favorites are shredded carrots, thinly sliced red or Nappa cabbage, sliced cucumbers, bean sprouts, peanuts, cashews and fresh herbs. Traditional Vietnamese herbs are cilantro, mint and basil. Sometimes I'll add slices of avocado, not typical Vietnamese - but super delicious!
- This pork also makes a delicious sandwich (Bahn Mi). Try it on French or Vietnamese baguettes with shredded carrot, pickled red onion, sliced cucumbers, cilantro leaves and a drizzle of nuoc cham (recipe below in Notes).
- Don't skip the corn syrup! I don't cook much with corn syrup but it's a little magical when it comes to making any kind of caramel sauce. Real caramel sauce is made by caramelizing sugar, either on its own or with a little water. It can be a tricky process as the sugar has a tendency to easily crystallize. Once the mixture begins to crystallize the whole thing will quickly "seize" and turn into a hard mass of crystallized sugar. A bit of corn syrup in the mixture totally prevents this from happening. It's a rather complex chemical reaction to explain but trust me that it works. I like to just call it "magic" - I've had so many caramel-making episodes go south, I'm thrilled now to know this little trick.
- Watch the sugar mixture carefully once you notice the slightest bit of color as it can quickly go from a pretty amber color to an ugly, nasty tasting burned concoction.
- Don't worry if the caramel mixture hardens up a little when you add the second quarter cup of water. It will smooth out when you return it to the heat.
- I recommend an instant thermometer for the pork. Instant thermometers are exactly what they say, they read the temperature within seconds. They're not expensive and will save you from dried-out, overcooked roasts, steaks and other cuts of meat, poultry and fish.
- This recipe called for pork tenderloin with "the silverskin removed". Here's a great article from Fine Cooking explaining what the silverskin is and how to remove it.
- 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 doesn't have the most wonderful aroma. But it adds delicious, almost mysterious flavor to many Vietnamese and Thai dishes, not "fish-y" at all. Don't skip it, just don't take a big whiff!
- We love Red Boat Fish Sauce. Red Boat used to be hard to find but Trader Joes now stocks it and it's also easily accessible online. Fish sauce will keep for months in the refrigerator so you can keep it on hand for any time the craving for this Vietnamese Caramelized Pork reappears!
Thought for the day:
I lift up my eyes to the mountains.
Where does my help come from?
My help comes from THE LORD,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
What we're listening to for inspiration:
If you enjoy this recipe, please come back and leave a star rating and review! It’s so helpful to other readers to hear your results, adaptations, and ideas for variations.
- 1 ½ tablespoons olive oil
- 1 ½ tablespoons brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons garlic salt
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1 teaspoon mild paprika
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon finely sliced cilantro stems optional
- 2 pounds pork tenderloin 1 large or two small, silverskin removed
- ¾ cup sugar
- ½ cup water divided
- 1 tablespoon clear corn syrup
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh lemongrass or lemongrass paste
- 1 teaspoon chili garlic sauce
Line a sheet pan with foil for easy cleanup. Spray the foil with cooking spray or drizzle with a bit of oil. Set aside.
Combine the olive oil, brown sugar, garlic salt, onion powder and paprika in a small bowl and stir till well combined.
Place the pork on the prepared pan and pat dry with a paper towel. Rub the pork all over with the brown sugar mixture. Use your hand to thoroughly coat with the rub. Allow to sit with rub while the oven preheats.
Preheat oven to 450˚F. Roast pork for 8 minutes then remove from oven and flip tenderloin(s) to opposite side with tongs. Drizzle with a bit more olive oil then return to oven and continue cooking another 10-15 minutes or until temperature reads 145˚F in the thickest portion. Check temp after 10 minutes and every couple of minutes after.
Tent pork loosely with foil and allow to rest for 10 minutes. Slice meat thinly, about ¼ inch thick. Combine sliced pork and sauce and serve.
Serve with rice and lots of fresh veggies. We like to drizzle the veggies with nuoc cham, which is a classic Vietnamese dipping sauce. I've included a recipe below under the recipe "Notes".
If making ahead, cool then wrap meat tightly in foil and refrigerate till ready to use.
While the meat is roasting, combine sugar, ¼ cup water and corn syrup in a medium size pan. Stir in the center of the pan to combine. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer and cook for 5-7 minutes until the mixture turns a medium amber color. Swirl the pan occasionally once the color begins to change.
Remove from heat and carefully add remaining ¼ cup water (mixture will spatter when you add the water), soy sauce, fish sauce, ginger, lemongrass and chili garlic sauce. Stir well then return to heat and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for 2-3 minutes until the sauce begins to thicken. Remove from heat and set aside. (If you like a thicker sauce, just let it simmer a little longer to desired consistency.)
See Café Tips above for further instructions and more tips.
To make nuoc cham combine: 5 tablespoons water, 3 tablespoons granulated sugar, 2 tablespoons rice vinegar, 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice, 1 tablespoon fish sauce and 1 teaspoon finely chopped cilantro (optional) and in a medium size glass jar. Shake until well combined. We like to serve lots of fresh, raw veggies with this Vietnamese Caramelized Pork and drizzle the nuoc cham over the veggies.