Caramel is something that most of us associate almost entirely with Western cuisine, more specifically with Western-style desserts, but the use of caramel is, in fact, common in Asian cooking, especially in those countries that formed part of the colonial Indochina region.
In Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and, to a lesser degree Thailand, the use of caramel sauce is fairly routine and is considered a pantry staple, added to a wide range of dishes. The caramel sauce enriches the colour of the dish and imparts a sweet, smoky undertone. The Vietnamese, in particular, are especially fond of this ingredient. Known as Nước Màu, some of Vietnam’s most popular dishes rely heavily on its inclusion – Bún Chả and Thịt Kho Tàu being prime examples.
Whilst its use is not as prevalent in Thailand, cooking with caramel is not uncommon in Thai cuisine, although typically the flavour is achieved through the caramelisation of palm sugar and not the use of a ready-made caramel sauce. Sweet meat dishes in Thai cuisine are considered the perfect foil to sharper, acidic flavours, as well as creamy coconut dishes – the classic pairing of Shredded Candied Pork, Coconut Rice & Green Papaya Salad (Som Tam) being a case in point. This heavenly balance of flavours is not, however, solely restricted to this classic combination and is something that should be considered when planning any Thai meal. This is where Thai Caramel Pork (Muu Waan) comes into its own.
Similar in flavour to Shredded Candied Pork, Thai Caramel Pork is in fact far quicker to make and is less labour intensive and can be used as an alternative to the shredded variety in the classic combination mentioned previously. Personally I like to pair Caramel Pork with a coconut-based dish such as a Mussaman or a Green curry and a zingy yam (Thai Salad). I am especially fond of serving it with either a simple Fried Egg Salad (Yam Khai Dao) or Waterfall Beef Salad (Neua Naam Tok).
Regardless of what you decide to serve it with, provided you cover the trifecta of Thai flavours (sweet, sour and rich), you’ll be onto an absolute dinner-winner!
Thai Caramel Pork (Muu Waan): Serves 4 as part of a larger Thai meal
- 400 to 500g boneless pork neck or shoulder
- 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 2 tbsp. vegetable oil
- 1 tbsp. oyster sauce
- 1 tbsp. light soya sauce
- 1 tbsp. fish sauce
- 1/2 tsp. ground white pepper
- 4 tbsp. palm sugar
- Deep-fried onions/shallots (optional)
- Baby Gem Lettuce
- Cut the pork across the grain into thin slices
- Combine the oyster, light soya and fish sauces in a small bowl
- Heat the oil in a large wok and add the chopped garlic
- Stir-fry the garlic for a few seconds and then add the sliced pork
- Continue stir-frying for 5 minutes and then add the combined sauces along with the palm sugar and ground pepper
- Continue cooking over a vigorous heat until the liquid has evaporated and the sauce caramelises and coats the pork. Be careful not to allow the caramel to burn
- Serve on a bed of baby gem lettuce and sprinkle with the deep-fried onions/shallots (if using)