Vietnamese Red-Cooked Baby Back Ribs

Vietnamese red cooking: adding caramelized sugar to pork baby back ribs

Red cooking is billed as “Chinese stewing“, but there is nothing specifically Chinese about it. It is also one of the more major cooking techniques in Vietnamese cuisine. I would not be surprised if the technique is also prominent in other Asian cuisines.

In Vietnamese cuisine, the technique is called “kho“. There are variations of the technique in every region of Vietnam. Also, since it is possible to use a lot of salt and fish sauce and sugar in “kho”ing, resulting in a highly salty and sweet dish, the technique probably also served as a way to preserve food in the old days, when refrigeration was not yet commonplace.

I remember my Mom’s red cooked pork belly, cod, shrimp, and chicken. Not fondly. 🙂 I never did like her red cooked dishes because they were always too salty and not sweet enough. Also, I also particularly hated her red cooked cod since most fish, especially less fatty ones, become hideous if cooked for a long time. My Mom never did grasp that fact. I can say with some confidence that I did not inherit the culinary gene from my Mom! 🙂

I generally avoid red cooking seafood. The length of cooking time required for the caramel and other flavors to infuse the protein would render the seafood completely inedible. Instead, I like to use red cooking as a stewing method, to cook dishes to be reheated and eaten several times during the week. Sometimes, I would do red cooked chicken or shrimp for a dinner, but it’s not technique I employ often for a single-meal dish.

Basically, red cooking features caramelized sugar as the main ingredient, resulting in a dish with reddish golden brown hue. My general procedure for red cooking is to sautée thinly sliced shallots as the aromatic for the dish, then add the protein and caramelized sugar and season with fish sauce and black pepper, adjusting the taste with salt.

With pork belly, pork ribs, or beef chuck roast, I would first cube and brown the meat in a cast iron Dutch oven, then remove the meat and sweat the shallots in the same pot. While I’m sweating the shallots, I make the caramel by heating about two tablespoons of white sugar in a small Teflon saucepan. When the sugar starts to melt, I return the meat to the pot so it would be heated up enough by the time the caramel is ready.

Remember that at this point, the caramel will darken very rapidly, turning dark and bitter very quickly, even if removed from heat. The trick is to add it to the meat just before it turns the desired shade. I like to add the caramel to the pot when it turns golden reddish brown and just starting to foam, as in this video, where I was making red cooked pork baby back ribs:

After adding the caramel, I add water or stock and a couple of Thai peppers and simmer for a couple of hours. I often add hard boiled eggs to the stew, but towards the end so they won’t be too overcooked. Letting the dish sit overnight in the fridge allows the flavor to round out more and also for the eggs to absorb the caramel sauce. It’s also common to add ginger and/or lemongrass. Another variation calls for coconut juice in the stew (not coconut milk!), though I don’t usually usually add coconut juice as my S.O. doesn’t care for its taste.

browned ribs, ready for caramel caramel, ready to add to ribs