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.

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