This Vietnamese pork belly recipe is perfect for a mid-week meal or as a dish to serve to friends when they come round. Salty, sweet, sharp and thoroughly delicious. It’s adapted from a recipe book called Koto – it’s . A beautiful book which touches on not just stunning recipes and photos of Vietnamese food but breaks down the cuisine by region and gives you a sense of Vietnamese culture along the way. It’s quite similar in that way to the cook book Samarkand, my favourite Persian cookbook from which I’ve shared recipes before (Tahdig and Aubergine Purée). Both cookbooks were given to me by my dad who it turns out has excellent cookbook taste. However, good cookbook or no this recipe is still an absolute cracker and the sauce works brilliantly whether it’s with pork belly, chicken thighs or even (if used sparingly) some fish.
Vietnam is a beautiful country which I had the privilege of visiting when I was around 15/16. We travelled all over the country and sampled some amazing food from some truly generous and hospitable people. My younger brother might say a little too friendly as they used to come up to him, grab his cheeks and smile because apparently he looked both like Buddha and a Vietnamese film star – something I like to remind him of.
When I first cooked this Vietnamese pork belly recipe, memories of travelling through the Mekong came flooding back. They served us some pork (not belly but rather shoulder) which was both sweet and salty. They added a hint of chilli, something I’ve omitted here but you could add it back if you fancy some spice. After we’d devoured the pork, they gave us plates full of exotic fruits like jackfruit and dragonfruit – the food memories of Vietnam will linger with me for the rest of my life.
Having been inspired by Vietnamese flavours, I’ve made caramel sauces to go with meat many times before. I find the sweetness works well with fatty meats like pork belly, especially if paired with a little acidity like in this dish from the lime and fish sauce. But this caramel and acid flavour works just as well outside of Asian flavours and a caramel sauce made from reduced apple juice and pork stock (left over from cooking a pork belly) works exceptionally – like in this recipe here. Acidity in general is used to both cut through richness or fattiness as well to enhance certain flavours. In a similar manner to how salt enhances the flavours inherent within a food, acidity causes us to salivate thus increasing our readiness to experience taste. It’s why lemon on seafood suddenly makes it taste more of seafood and why most classic french sauces are finished with a dash of vinegar or lemon juice. It’s also why the sour element is so important in the magical quadrumvirate of Asian food – Salty, sweet, spicy and sour.
Making the sauce is really the only technical part of this Vietnamese pork belly recipe, and then it’s only really making a caramel. Sometimes I’ve found people are a little scared of caramel, but there’s no reason to be. You especially shouldn’t be scared of what’s called a dry caramel (you don’t add any water). You simply add sugar to a pan over a medium/high heat and watch it until it’s a dark golden colour but not burnt. There’re lots of wives’ tales about not stirring the sugar or brushing down the sides with a wet brush which frankly are rubbish. Those stories are meant to help you stop the caramel from “crystalising” which is when it goes hard and lumpy – but that is only a risk when making a wet caramel, i.e., from sugar dissolved in water (which is meant to be easier because it’s harder to burn but is actually much easier to mess up and what scares most people off). The sauce will keep for months so is worth making a decent batch of and keeping. You can cook the pork in advance (makes it even more tender) which then means this whole dish will come together in 15-20 minutes in the oven just heating through – perfect if you’ve got guests coming round as it’s just enough time to pop the rice and veggies in a rice cooker/steamer to serve!
In fact – here are my three TimedEating tips for how to make this dish fit into your life whenever you need it:
- Make the sauce in advance and in a large batch whenever you have time – it keeps for ages (weeks) and is delicious on all sorts of foods
- Like many braised meats, pork belly can be cooked in advance. In this recipe you’ve got two choices: You can either cook the pork belly in the sauce as per the recipe below and it will keep for a long time but if you do this then you should refresh it with a little dash of lime juice and fish sauce to finish. Alternatively, you can slow cook the pork belly by itself (like this recipe) and then simply warm through in the sauce for 15 minutes in the oven, this way the sauce doesn’t get quite as unctuous and rich but you can make crackling and have some leftover pork belly. This is how I did it when my friends came round.
Vietnamese Pork Belly
Ingredients: (enough for four people)
For the sauce (this makes enough for ~2 cups of sauce, consider making in larger batches as it keeps almost indefinitely):
- 275g caster sugar
- juice of 4 limes
- 325ml water
- 125ml fish sauce
For the pork:
- 2 cups caramel sauce
- 3 spring onions sliced thinkly
- 2 banana shallots sliced thinly
- 3 garlic cloves sliced thinly
- Bunch of coriander
- 1kg pork bellly
- 1 lime to serve
For the sauce:
- Place the sugar in a heavy bottomed pan over a medium high heat and watch carefully, stirring occasionally until the caramel has reached a golden amber colour. You don’t want a dark caramel as you get enough savoury notes from the fish sauce.
- Add the water and lime juice. It will splutter and seize a little but leave on the heat stirring and it will come together after a few minutes. Add the fish sauce and transfer to an airtight jar to store in the fridge.
For the pork: (There are two methods, the first is all in one pot, the second is cooking the pork separately which gives a more tender pork but takes longer)
- If cooking the pork separately, follow these steps, remove the skin and slice the pork into chunks before reheating in the sauce for 15 minutes prior to serving. Alternatively you can portion the pork, reduce the sauce slightly and serve as a plated restaurant style dish.
- If cooking all in one go, leave the skin on the pork and chop into manageable chunks. Combine with the sauce, spring onions, shallots and garlic in a cast iron or oven safe earthernware container. I like to use a tagine that was given to us at our wedding.
- Place in an oven preheated to 150 degrees for 3-4 hours. At this point you can either serve straight away or chill in the fridge and reheat in a 150 degree oven up to a week later.
- Just before serving sprinkle in some roughly chopped coriander and garnish with lime wedges. Serve the Vietnamese pork belly with rice and steamed garlic vegetables.