Thit kho is a dish very much akin to bolognese - everyone and [literally] their mother has a different methodology for making what they believe is the best caramelized pork belly. Of course, every mother – mine included – will proudly flaunt this fact in front of her children, reminding them how important it is to keep her cooking up on a pedestal.
I remember vividly almost fifteen years ago one of these moments. We were watching our ritual after dinner tv show in the garage, back when cathode shooting ray tv’s with the antenna were still technologically advanced, when my mom came in with a humble stainless steel bowl.
“TRY THIS!”, she demanded. It was filled with rice coated in a sticky brown substance, dotted with chunks of pork. It wasn't the succulent meat itself that drew my attention, but the caramelized sauce it was glossed in. It was stuff that you would ask second bowls of rice for because all you wanted to do was swirl and mash it together into the world's best side dish. Whereas the thit kho we’d usually have would be swimming in a dark broth and hard boiled eggs, this version was glossed in a sticky glaze – an unctuously sweet elixir. The braising liquid was reduced until pork fat and sugar formed a sticky, bubbly mess, and the meat is (here I go), fried in savory caramel.
Despite how easy it was to make, for some reason it was a special occasion meal. We’d only have it a couple times of year, and while I’d always forget it existed until we would eat it, I’d be left longing for it the days afterwards. My theory is that she whipped out the dish when we were in times of need, either to celebrate an accomplishment or bandage a disappointment – not as an act of motherly kindness, but once again caution us of how much power she really had over us via her cooking.
When I left home I would periodically ask her how to make it, in which she would respond in her ever broken English, “You take this, and add that, and then you cook it until it’s done. So simple!” She was the epitome of no recipe cooking.
“Give me a recipe!” I’d cry. I didn’t understand how anyone could replicate a dish based off of such abstract directions and measurements. I needed to be like Ina Garten - meticulously measuring each ¼ teaspoon of “good” kosher salt while I laughed in my imaginary East Hampton mansion.
Funnily enough, when I finally learned how to make it, a recipe was the last thing I used, and I still haven’t gotten the chance to go back and detail an exact recipe - that would ruin the point of you finding your own methodology of making this. Happy No Recipes Day everyone.
mom's pork belly
an ironically rough outline
pork belly, cut into 1-inch chunks
ginger, sliced into chunks
coco rico coconut soda (or coconut water if you can’t find it)
In a large bowl, toss your pork belly cubes with a good amount of ground black pepper, a couple tablespoons of fish sauce (enough to just moisten), and a small handful of shallots. Let marinate for 15-20 minutes.
In a large, heavy bottom pot (a dutch oven works great), heat over high heat a quarter inch of vegetable oil and enough sugar (let’s say ⅓ to ½ cup) to cover the bottom of the pan. Stir it around until a dark caramel forms - the sugar will clump up for a while, but just keep heating it - it’ll eventually melt into an oily caramel.
Keep the heat on high. Once the caramel is dark, add in the pork belly, stirring around to coat in the caramel for 2-3 minutes. Add the slices of ginger, and saute for another minute. Add enough coconut soda to come up half way up the sides of the pork, followed by enough water so that it barely reaches the top of the meat. Finally, add a healthy amount of fish sauce until the braising liquid is well seasoned to your liking. Reduce the heat so that the liquid is simmering, and let braise for 2-3 hours, or until the pork is tender.
Remove the pieces of belly and turn the heat to high - reduce the braising liquid until it forms a thick, syrupy caramel. You want it to be a very dark brown, and it should bubble like lava. Add the belly back to the pot, frying it in the caramel. Skim off any excess fat that has accumulated. Serve with copious amounts of steamed rice to sop up all of the sauce.