If I could name one of the many comfort foods in Vietnamese cuisine that brings back warm, delicious memories to all my Viet friends and family, it would be this dish: Thit heo kho trung, braised pork belly (or shoulder/butt) with boiled eggs. It’s the comfort of pork slowly cooked in sweet caramel, till the the soft meat becomes rich and flavorful that makes all of us salivate with homesickness when we’re far away from home. To complete the dish, add some boiled eggs to braise amongst this amazing pot of pork comfort, and some warm jasmine rice with some cool, crunchy, pickled mustard greens for contrast and texture.
Thit heo kho trung is one of the many classic examples of Vietnamese home-cooking at it’s best. This humble Vietnamese braised caramel pork dish speaks volumes to me about who I am and the simple dishes in life that I need to keep me satisfied, sane and happy.
Every morning, at 6 am, Mom would be busy at the stove, starting her morning routine of cooking for her household of hungry kids and my foodie father. We’d wake up to this warm pot of slow, simmering goodness and it was a wake up call that that filled the house with braised love. My always multi-tasking Mom would get the little twins ready for school with her left hand, while feeding the rest of us with her right hand.
She’s an ambidextrous, culinary fool. You would have to watch her genius to believe everything that I say.
With a shoe in one hand and a soup ladle in the other, Mom dished out bowls of hot rice, topped with her braised, melt in your mouth pork. We’d shovel the rice, and braised pork in our mouths, then take a bite of the caramelized boiled eggs and pickled mustard greens. It was a breakfast of champions that fueled us out the door for another day of school.
As children, we didn’t always treasure all the hours of home cooked goodness for three meals a day.
Eating thit heo kho trung all the time as a kid became mundane and sometimes us kids just wanted our big mac and fries, ya know? Growing up with homemade chow at home, but with the tempting sights of pizza, hamburgers and fried chicken all around us was challenging. Those processed fast food delicacies always made us yearn for the exotic American foods that existed outside my mother’s kitchen.
Eventually, home cooked meals that my mom slaved over every morning became dull. I know that sounds sacrilegious to the culinary world, but I suppose when you’re growing up as a low income, ethnic kid like myself, fast food was considered “gourmet”.
As kids we wanted American bacon, sausage and pancakes that Ronald McDonald served at his restaurant. Even if he was just a clown, he made me happy with his big red lips, jolly face and fabulous cheeseburgers.
As we grew up, moved out and went away to experience the independence and debt that came with adulthood, the days of longing for pizza and burgers slowly disappeared. The freedom of not having parents around meant that home cooked meals by Mom became a scarcity. There’s always that trade-off. It was the thoughts of those mornings with hot rice and Mom’s braised pork belly that we yearned for when we walked back through her door.
She would snicker with her motherly pride and always know that it was because of her hot rice dishes that we couldn’t be far from home for too long.
Mom always says that no matter where we go or what we eat, nothing brings us back to the comforts of home like a meal of hot rice, a little meat/fish and some greens. Vietnamese braised pork and eggs is a perfect example of those childhood memories that I eventually fall back on. This is the power of humble, home cooking.
Yield: 4 servings.
Total Time: 2 hours
To make this dish, we'll use different cuts of pork depending on our mood. When we're feeling more generous with ourselves or don't give a crap about our cholesterol, we'll go for the gusto with choose a whole slab of beautiful pork belly: fat, skin and all. Lately, Mom has been using pork shoulder/butt more often because she feels that we don't need all that fat anymore. She could be right. We really should listen to her.
Normally using regular sugar for the Vietnamese caramel sauce and small chicken eggs , but as of late, we've been enjoying the flavorful benefits of palm sugar and the indulgence of quail eggs. Either will work well, choose your delicious poison. To add that texture of pickled crunch that I mentioned earlier, Vietnamese pickled mustard greens is usually added as an accompaniment to balance the rich, braised pork and eggs. If you don't have the traditional pickled mustard greens, eating some sliced raw cucumbers or tomatoes will add the same delicious effect. Many of my aunties eat fresh slices of cucumbers to heighten the flavors of the braised pork. I'll be posting the recipe for the pickled mustard greens soon