I’ve cooked this dish many times before using the traditional method. Caramelize sugar in a wok, add pork cubes, cook until the sticky syrup coats the meat, add coconut juice and hard-boiled eggs and braise until the pork is tender.
But I always found the first stage of cooking — tossing the meat in sticky caramelized sugar — problematic. The sugar often seizes when the pork is added because the temperature drops immediately. So, I tried another way of cooking this lovely dish. And I find that this modified cooking procedure is easier, less messy and less prone to disaster.
I start by parboiling a slab of pork belly in water with a little fish sauce (adding spices is optional) for about half an hour. After most of the water has evaporated, I transfer the partially cooked pork to a chopping board and cut it into cubes.
Chopped shallots and garlic are sauteed in oil, the pork cubes are added, fish sauce is poured in and they are tossed around for a few minutes until the pork has soaked up the fish sauce and edges of the meat are lightly browned. This stage takes a few minutes and I use that time to caramelize the sugar.
In another pan, I boil a quarter cup of white sugar with half a cup of coconut juice until the sugar melts and the mixture is amber colored. I know some recipes say use brown sugar but that’s not a good idea.
Some cooks substitute brown sugar to give the syrup its signature caramel color but that’s not really how it works. You have to allow the sugar to melt and cook in the coconut juice until most of the liquid evaporates to give the sugar a chance to caramelize on its own. That’s how you get the correct color. Note too that brown sugar melted in liquid does not taste the same as caramelized sugar.
As for the coconut juice, you need the juice of young coconut. Some cooks don’t differentiate and they use juice from mature coconut as though it won’t make a difference. It does make a difference. Juice from mature coconut tastes like spoiled fermented water. Juice from young coconut is lightly sweet. If you need a guide in differentiating young from mature coconut, see the linked post below.
Caramelized sugar hardens fast as soon as it is taken off the heat. So, as soon as it reaches that amber-colored stage (note the color of the carmelized sugar in the photo), I immediately pour it over the pork and toss until every piece of pork is glistening with the sticky syrup.
Hard-boiled eggs are added and more coconut water is poured in. Everything is simmered until the pork is cooked through and the sauce has reduced.
Caramelized pork and eggs
- In a large shallow pan, boil two cups of water with a tablespoon of fish sauce. Drop in the pork, bring to the boil, cover, lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes.
- Scoop out the pork and cut into 1 ½-inch cubes.
- In a wok, heat the cooking oil.
- Saute the shallots and garlic for about a minute then stir in the pork cubes.
- Drizzle in two to three tablespoons fish sauce and leave to allow the pork to soak up the liquid and render some fat.
- While the pork cooks in fish sauce, melt the sugar with a quarter cup of coconut juice until syrupy and amber colored.
- Pour the caramelized sugar over the pork and toss until every pork cube is coated with the syrup.
- Pour in the remaining cup and a half of coconut juice and add the hard-boiled eggs.
- Cover the wok and braise the pork and eggs for about 30 minutes or until the pork is cooked through and the sauce has reduced to less than half.
- Taste, add more fish sauce if needed, before serving with rice.