If you're going to delve deeply into cooking Vietnamese food, get over your fear of heat and make some caramel sauce! It's not as difficult as you may think. Just get some sugar, water and a saucepan. Once you've mastered it, it will quickly become your stealth ingredient. All you're doing is nearly burning sugar.
Caramel sauce (nuoc mau, pronounced "nook mao") is one of the cornerstones of Vietnamese cooking. It's primarily used in kho dishes to simmer savory foods such as whole fish, pork, shrimp, chicken, eggs and tofu -- homey foods that are the soul of Vietnamese cooking. The color and flavor of caramel sauce are transformative, making food not only look beautifully amber but also delectable.
The term nuoc mau was originally coined in South Vietnam. People in North Vietnam called the same ingredient nuoc hang ("nook hahng"), literally translated as 'merchandising water', probably because it was so often used by food hawkers to enhance the appearance of their wares. Think of how molasses add to the flavor of barbecued foods.
The traditional method of making this sauce requires you to add boiling water to the caramelized sugar, which starts a dramatic reaction that's not for the faint of heart. The point of doing this is to arrest the cooking process so that the sugar doesn't burn to a bitter black stage. I find it easier to place the pan bottom into a sink filled with water and then adding the remaining water to dilute the sugar. The result of both approaches is the same bittersweet inky sauce that's a staple in every Vietnamese kitchen.
Use caramel sauce for Viet kho dishes, or as a little cheat in your marinades for foods that will go on the grill so that they color nicely. Don't put it on ice cream or other desserts. Its sweet, dark coffee flavor will taste yucky bad. Finally, select a light-colored saucepan to monitor the caramelization, and make sure it's clean.
Resist buying the heinous tasting pre-fab caramel sauce at the Vietnamese market that's labeled "coconut thin sauce". You're better
off doing it yourself! The photos below are for encouragement.
Makes 1 cup
1 cup sugar
¼ cup plus ½ cup water
Fill the sink with enough water to come halfway up the side of a 1-quart, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Place the sugar and 1/4 cup of the water into the saucepan and cook over medium-low heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves, about 2 to 3 minutes.
As the sugar melts, the mixture will go from opaque to clear. Small bubbles will form at the edge and gradually grow larger, moving toward the center of the pan. Eventually, bubbles will cover the entire surface. After about 15 minutes, the sugar will begin to caramelize and turn in color. You'll see a progression from cham pagne yellow to light tea to dark tea.
When smoke starts rising, remove the saucepan from the heat and slowly swirl it around. Watch the sugar closely as it will turn darker by the second; a reddish cast will set in (think the color of a big and bold red wine) as the bubbles become a lovely burnt orange. Pay attention to the color of the caramel underneath the bubbles. When the caramel color is that of black coffee or molasses, place the pan in the sink to stop the cooking process. The hot pan bottom will sizzle upon contact and the bubble action will subside.
Add the remaining 1/2 cup of water (there may be a small dramatic reaction) and place t
he saucepan back on the stove over medium heat, stirring until the caramel has dissolved into the water. The result will be slightly viscous; flavor-wise, it will be bittersweet. Pour the caramel sauce into a small glass jar and let it cool; it will thicken further. Store indefinitely in your kitchen cupboard.
Recipe from: Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors (Ten Speed Press, 2006) by Andrea Nguyen.