Sunday, November 22, 2009

I Love New Pork City, Part 2: Thit Kho


So for part 2 of my pork rampage I decided to make some thit kho (pronounced “tit caw,” and yes I laugh every time I say it out loud because I’m in the second grade), a Vietnamese comfort food from my youth.  Thit kho is basically braised pork with a fishsauce/sugar sauce and is such a great example of the harmonious balance between savory and sweet that one typically finds in Southeast Asian cuisine.  The unique thing about this seemingly simple dish is that the pork gets a coating of caramelized sugar.  My mom’s way of doing this was to first heat sugar in a pan and then brown the pork in the caramelized sugar.  Pork shoulder was typically her choice cut of meat, but for my rendition I wanted to use pork belly.


Despite the fond memories I have of eating thit kho, sometimes the pork would come out dry because my mom would trim a lot of the fat.  This wasn’t a big deal since there is a sauce to add moisture, but it was hard to look past it sometimes because I felt the dish was perfect in every other way.  To alleviate this potential pitfall, I chose pork belly for it’s unctuousness and ability to not dry out due to its layers of fat.  I used some pork shoulder that I set aside when butchering the shoulder for my carnitas so I could compare which cut I liked better: belly or shoulder. 


I mentioned that my mom makes thit kho by first caramelizing sugar in the pan.  I’ve done it this way before, but I’ve been using a new method the last few times I’ve made thit kho.  What I do is simply marinate the meat in a combination of fishsauce, sugar, garlic, shallots, and water.  The marinade later becomes the base of the sauce, and I find that marinating the meat enhances the flavor of the final dish.  Traditionally, though, coconut water is used rather than water for the base of the sauce.  My mom said coconut water is used because it’s so abundant in Vietnam.  I’m guessing it also adds slightly to the overall sweetness of the dish.  After marinating the meat overnight, I brown the meat and the sugar from the marinade caramelizes on the outside of the meat very nicely.


Aside from the pork, my mom and I make thit kho with eggs and tofu skin, or yuba as it is also called which I recently discovered by dining at Alinea.  Tofu skin comes packaged either as flat sheets or what are often called “sticks” or “threads.”  The sticks/threads are basically flat sheets that are rolled up to resemble a stick.  My mom uses the sticks and breaks them up into 2-inch pieces and I’ve kept that consistent with my thit kho.  The tofu skin needs to be soaked in water before cooking to reconstitute it a bit, but I soaked mine in marinade just for kicks.  When cooked, the tofu skin adds a great chewy texture to the dish.  By nature, tofu skin is only a bit chewy, but tofu skin sticks are even chewier because they are denser because its basically tofu skin folder over onto itself.  And even though some may say tofu is flavorless, I feel that tofu skin has a very distinct flavor and I love it.  One of my favorite dim sum dishes is tofu skin stuffed with mushroom and various other things.  Also, I like the funny logo for the particular brand of tofu skin that I bought, so how can I not enjoy tofu skin?


When it comes to the eggs, they were by far my favorite part of the dish as a kid.  Cooking the eggs with the pork and sauce imparts the general flavor of the dish directly into the eggs.  Eaten alone, the eggs taste great, but there was just something so divine about the combination of thit kho sauce, hard-cooked egg infused with thit kho flavors, and some rice.  The memories of my mom saving the eggs for me because she knew I loved them makes me want to try new things with the general flavor profile of thit kho sauce and eggs.  Perhaps eggs poached in thit kho sauce over rice for breakfast?


Another aspect of my thit kho that breaks away from my mom’s preparation is the recent inclusion of brussels sprouts.  I got the idea spontaneously when I saw some nice brussels sprouts for sale and recalled Tom’s recent use of them in paella.  I didn’t take long for me to realize that the bitterness of brussels sprouts would probably play really nicely with the sweetness of thit kho.  It didn’t hurt that I loved brussels sprouts as a kid and still do specifically for their bitterness.  I was really excited to see how it would come out, but unfortunately when it came time to execute I didn’t think it through very well and added the brussels sprouts to the braise at the very beginning.  Flavor-wise, I wish the brussels sprouts came out a little more bitter, but they did their job and added a new aspect to the dish.  However, the long braising resulted in textures and visuals that I wasn’t going for: a mushy, mopy green sphere.  I wanted some crunch or bite to the brussels sprouts to give some contrast to the other textures of the thit kho and bright green colors to go against the brown color of the sauce.

I fortified the sauce with some homemade beef stock that I made from the 8 bazillion pounds of short rib bones I had from butchering and grinding a ton of short rib meat  for the volunteer dinner I did at a the Lincoln Park Community Shelter.  We made hamburgers that were a mix of chuck and short rib that I freshly ground.

In the end, I felt the addition of brussels sprouts was nice but poorly executed, and I definitely preferred the pieces of pork belly over pork shoulder.  The belly simply had more flavor and was by far more moist.  I’ve already started planning Part 3 of my pork adventure: Chinese BBQ-style roast pork using pork belly.

Friday, November 20, 2009

I Love New Pork City, Part 1: Carnitas

I’ve been going on a pork rampage of sorts lately.  It all started when my dad visited a couple weeks ago.  It seems every time he visits, we end up picking up some Chinese roast pork and Chinese BBQ pork.  I hadn’t had Chinese BBQ in a few months, but it reminded me how awesome pork is.  It’s hard to deny the perfect harmony of a Chinese roast pork’s lean, fat, and crispy skin.  After rekindling my love for pork, I felt it was necessary to plan my next grocery list accordingly.  I picked up some nice pork shoulder and some nice pork belly.  My plan was to use 75% of the shoulder for carnitas and the remaining 25% and the belly for thit kho (Vietnamese caramelized braised pork).  So first up was the carnitas.

I have to admit that I’m a relative carnitas noob.  Even after living in Southern California for a long time, my family didn’t frequent many Mexican restaurants.  If we ever went out for Mexican food, 99% of the time it was strictly for menudo.  I still remember the place though: it was in Monrovia right next to the storefront they used as the pet store in the Beethoven movie.  When it came to taco stands, the only exposure I had was to Taco Treat which was right down the street from where we lived.  As a fat kid growing up, I was addicted to their chimichangas (basically a deep fried bean and cheese burrito) and taquitos.  I’m also a bit ashamed to say that I haven’t taken advantage of the many offerings of the large Hispanic community along Clark Street in Rogers Park which is just a stone’s throw away from me.  My only experience with carnitas is from Chipotle, and I don’t have any other reference to judge whether their carnitas is authentic.  All I know is that I like the general flavors and love pork.


I like my carnitas to have a nice sweetness and a hint tartness.  I’ve seen recipes call for orange juice or colas, but I like to use tamarind.  Fortunately, I can get fresh tamarind pods at my local Food 4 Less thanks to a large Hispanic community in the area rather than having to settle for tamarind paste.  The only problem with buying fresh tamarind pods is that none of the cashiers ever know what it is even when I tell them.  This time around when I told the cashier what it was and spelled it out for her, she couldn’t find it in her little code book because it’s actually listed as “tamarindo” rather than tamarind.  You’d think she’d be able to figure out that tamarindo and tamarind are the same thing and that tamarindo is simply the Spanish word for tamarind.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

My Last Meal and Shoti

I love to watch Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. Bourdain’s cynical attitude is so infectious and entertaining. Every now and then, he’ll ask someone on the show what their last meal would be if they were going to die the next day. I ponder the question myself every time I hear him bring it up. One would think that I’d simply choose whatever is my favorite food is, but different foods can evoke different emotions and memories. My favorite food (the jury is still out on this one) may not carry the sentimental significance as other foods.

jookpate chaud

cha giodosa   

The things that would typically come to mind are pho, bot chien, cha gio, murgh makhani, dosa, my grandma’s Thanksgiving turkey, my mom’s “Rice, Butter, Maggi, Egg” (exactly what it sounds like, the egg cooked sunny-side up), jook/congee/chao with fried donut and 1000 year old egg, my grandma’s vegetarian pate chaud, moussaka, unagidon, hummus, and baba ghanoush. (pictures via and


Then I heard David Chang’s response to Bourdain when he was asked “what’s food porn for you?”  Chang’s response was “bread and butter is probably my favorite thing.”  That’s when it hit me.  Bread and butter.  Nothing more. Nothing less.  That’s what I want my last meal on Earth to be.  Whether or not the butter is salted or not is still up for debate, though.

Thursday, November 5, 2009



Pho, while not necessarily my absolute favorite thing to eat, is without a doubt one of my comfort foods.  Everything about it invokes some kind of memory and puts me at ease.  I don’t recall my mom cooking pho too often when I was young, and when she did it seemed like it was usually pho ga which is chicken-based rather than beef-based.  Even so, going out for pho wasn’t uncommon.
The thing about pho is that it’s so personal.  From the cuts of meat that you like in it, to whether or not you put hoisin sauce and sriracha directly into the soup, to whether or not you add bean sprouts or lime, to how you eat it, the list goes on and on and every choice is a personal one.  My idealized version of pho consists of the following:
  • a super beefy stock that is on the sweet side
  • short rib, oxtail, raw flank steak, tendon, and bible tripe
  • green onion, cilantro, and Thai basil
  • slightly chewy noodles
  • 2/3 hoisin mixed with 1/3 sriracha on the side
IMG_4094IMG_4098 IMG_4083 IMG_4080

For the base of the stock, I like to use a combination of oxtail and marrow bones.  This time, I opted for just oxtail and I like to brown them first so they develop a nice crust for some extra flavor due to the Maillard reaction.  One of the keys to getting a sweet stock is to char the onions and ginger that go into the stock.  I also like to put roasted garlic into my stock for another subtly sweet note.  It was pretty cold outside, so instead of using my grill to char and roast, I used my oven.  An additional sweet component that is traditionally used in pho is yellow rock candy.  Never try to substitute sugar for yellow rock candy.  It just isn’t the same.  A myriad spices including star anise, cinnamon, cloves, fennel seeds, cardamom, and coriander seeds give the stock its distinctly anise-y tone.  Lastly, you can’t call something Vietnamese without a decent amount of fish sauce.


As I mentioned earlier, I tried something different this time around: gelatin filtration.  The process took forever, 4 days, because the blocks of stock were pretty thick.  My entire fridge started to smell like pho and I was left with quite a bit of gelatin.  But was it worth it?


Above and to the left is the gelatin after all the liquids had melted.  Above and to the right is the resulting liquid.  It turned out crystal clear.  In fact, I could indeed see the date of a dime at the bottom of a bowl.  In the end, I probably won’t bother filtering my stock in the future through gelatin filtration.  It was just too time consuming even though I didn’t have to do anything.  I mean, how’s a person supposed to wait 4 full days to enjoy some pho after cooking it?  Perhaps if I was trying to impress an audience I’d do it, but for me I don’t care if my stock is murky and full of impurities.


As for how I eat pho, I usually get some noodles, meat, and herbs between my chopsticks and use my spoon to slather on the hoisin/sriracha sauce to what’s hanging off my chopsticks and gorge.  My perfect bite of pho is illustrated above.  Between shoveling noodles and meat into my mouth, I’ll take a sip of broth.  I’m not the biggest gulper of pho broth and like a larger ratio of noodles to broth.  And that’s what pho is to me.