We make a lot of Asian food at home. The idea for this pork belly recipe comes from Vietnam, where caramel sauce is used in many traditional simmered or braised savory dishes.
Vietnamese caramel sauce is used not only with meat, but also with chicken, fish, and shellfish. We adapted our version of the sauce from The Foods of Vietnam by Nicole Routhier, a very good book on Vietnamese cooking. Many recipes for Vietnamese caramel sauce call for only sugar and water. This one substitutes fish sauce (nuoc mam) for the water.
Lemongrass is another classic Vietnamese ingredient and, along with the chiles and scallions, works to give the finished pork belly a Vietnamese “feel.” While three bird chiles may seem like a lot, the finished pork belly did not seem too hot or spicy to us. You can adjust the heat to your taste by using less chile or removing the seeds.
We weigh down the pork belly after it is cooked in order to end up with a piece that is uniform in thickness. This is purely for aesthetics, not taste, and it’s not necessary for many uses. But if you want to serve the pork belly as a single piece or cut it into squares, this step makes the meat more even.
Save the cooking liquid, as it has great flavor. We used the pork to make Banh Mi, a Vietnamese sandwich, and we also used it along with the cooking liquid in a stir fry in place of the more traditional Chinese twice-cooked pork. It would be great in Vietnamese spring rolls with shrimp.
Makes 2½ to 3 cups of meat
- Score the top fat layer of the pork belly with a sharp knife. Set aside, fat side down, while you make the caramel sauce.
- Place the sugar in a small, heavy saucepan and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until golden brown. It should be almost the color of brown sugar and just starting to smoke slightly.
- Remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in the fish sauce, standing well back, as it will bubble vigorously and may splatter.
- Return the pan to low heat and gently boil, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is completely dissolved, about 3 minutes. Add the shallots and ground pepper to taste; stir to combine. Set the sauce aside to cool.
- When the caramel has cooled, spread about half on the underside of the pork belly, then turn the meat and spread the remainder on the top or fat side.
- Sprinkle lemongrass, chiles, and scallions on top of the caramel. Transfer the pork belly to a cooking bag but do not seal. Refrigerate for 1 hour.
- Remove the pork belly from the refrigerator and vacuum seal the bag. (The caramel should have set enough that this won’t be a problem.) Refrigerate the sealed bag for 4 hours.
- Preheat the water bath to 180°F (82°C).
- Cook the pork belly for 16 hours.
- Carefully remove the pork belly from the bag, reserving the juices, and place on a baking sheet. Place another baking sheet on top and weigh it down with a brick or large can. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight. Refrigerate the reserved juices separately. Serve the pork cut into squares, accompanied by some of the reserved sauce. Or use in banh mi, stir fry, or spring rolls.