Vietnamese Fish-Sauce Caramel is a Revelation
I can’t believe I haven’t written about Vietnamese caramel in this newsletter yet.
When I was traveling in Vietnam, there were two things that I could not get enough of: crunchy lemongrass dishes (we’ll save those for another time) and things cooked in fish sauce caramel. This is one of the most enchanting cooking techniques I’ve ever learned, and if you can get over the stress of melting sugar (it freaks some people out), it’s pretty easy. Here’s the idea: you melt the sugar, which becomes beautifully bitter while retaining its sticky sweetness as it browns, carefully pour in a mixture of fish sauce and water, and cook, stirring, until the caramel melts into the liquid. Feel free to stir in thinly sliced shallots, garlic, or red onion, and make sure to season it aggressively (I mean it) with black pepper. If you’ve never made or eaten this, the result (sweet, savory, salty, funky, peppery) is gonna blow your mind.
Once you have the caramel, you can do a number of things with it, and I’ve tried to capture a few of them in the recipes below. The most classic method is to use the caramel as a poaching liquid for fish (along with some additional water if you need it). This is an unimaginably flavorful way to cook a piece of fish; the version below uses salmon, but it’s not hard to think of other types of seafood that would be equally good treated this way: shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels, squid (if you cook them for either a very short or very long time), and any number of other fish fillets or steaks.
The caramel is also great for braises (quick or slow, veggie or meaty). I’ve included an incredible version with winter squash and canned jackfruit, which uses soy sauce in place of fish sauce; less traditional, still delicious, totally vegan. Then there’s a longer (and slightly-less-vegan) braised candied pork rib dish that’s really hard to stop eating.
Of course, any sauce that’s this good should eventually find its way to a grill, so I had to include some fish-sauce-and-black-pepper-caramel grilled chicken wings for good measure; plus, it’s “spring” now, so outdoor cooking is back on the table.
Some final notes: 1) If you like fish sauce, but not in the amounts in these recipes, feel free to replace some of it with water or a combination of water and soy sauce. 2) If you’re nervous about cooking the caramel, adding an extra tablespoon or two of water at the very beginning will slow the pace and give you a little more time to breathe. 3) I know cooking food in caramel (especially one laced with fish sauce) may sound weird if you’ve never done it before, but it’s really one of my favorite cooking methods of all time, and I hope you try it.
In this recipe, from Dinner for Everyone, the salmon is cooked (poached, essentially) directly in the caramel, which gives it a delicate texture and an unbelievable amount of flavor. It may sound like a strange technique, but this cooking method is classic and totally ubiquitous in Vietnam. And feel free to swap in a different kind of fish for the salmon; red snapper, grouper, black sea bass and catfish will all work.
Squash and jackfruit may not seem like an obvious combination, but braised together in a soy sauce caramel tinged with garlic, shallots, and lime…it’s kind of magic (and vegan). A word on buying jackfruit: You want “young” or “green” canned jackfruit, not the fully ripe, stinky fruit. Stay away from the kind packed in syrup; choose a brand canned in water or brine and rinse it thoroughly to remove as much of the vinegary taste as possible.
Fish sauce caramel is so delicious that it would be practically criminal to not slather it on a grilled chicken wing (or any other meat, seafood, tofu, or vegetable you feel like cooking on the grill).
Baby back are my favorite for this because you can easily cut between the bones and they become tender pretty quickly, but feel free to use spare ribs (like the ones pictured above). You could braise a spatula in this sauce and it would probably taste good.
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