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Seriously Asian: Caramel Sauce

If there's one thing I like as much as taking apart ducks, it's making caramel. Burnt sugar and burnt butter are perhaps the most alluring scents in my kitchen, though the term "burnt" is used loosely here. More accurately, the smells of caramel are toasty and sweet, with a buttery, milky hint.

Just as caramel is intoxicating to breathe in and eat, the cooking process is also mesmerizing to watch. From water and sugar, a syrup turns from opaque to clear. Bubbles build up dramatically in the pot as the sugar heats and festers. In the course of a few short minutes, the mass of clear sugary liquid you've been nursing will turn from a delicate yellow to a brassy gold, until finally, the bubbles at the surface become a beautiful burnished orange hue.

Caramel sauce, in which a cup of cream is added to the mixture at the very end, produces a smooth, silky product that we like to use in ice cream, between layers of cake, and in other sweet desserts. Travel to a Vietnamese kitchen, however, and the term "caramel sauce," means something very different. A dark, slightly viscous liquid resembling a thinned-out molasses, caramel sauce for the Vietnamese cook is an all-purpose seasoning, second only to fish sauce and perhaps soy sauce. If you've ever wondered why a grilled Vietnamese-style skewer of meat possesses an ineffably smoky and sweet backdrop, chances are you're tasting this sauce.

Unlike the caramel we love to eat in desserts, caramel in Vietnamese cookery is allowed to progress an iota further on the range of dark brown, until it approaches a black coffee color. Waiting for the liquid to reach this shade of brown may seem unnatural to a cook familiar with desert caramel sauce, but doing so is critical. The extra cooking time contributes to a bittersweet, smoky flavor in the caramel that adds an incomparable depth to a savory braise or grill. Adding a dollop to a pot of simmering chicken thighs enriches the entire dish, and a few spoonfuls to a meat marinade will create a more rounded flavor on the grill.

On the streets, the northern Vietnamese know caramel sauce as "nước hàng" or "merchandizing water" because it is often used by street vendors to boost the flavor and sheen of their items. In homes, savory dishes in which meat, poultry, or seafood is simmered in a caramel-based liquid are called Kho, and these types of braises are abundant in Vietnamese cookery.

Here, I offer two applications of caramel sauce using the same medium (pork spareribs) to demonstrate the integral role of this sauce.

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In the first recipe, the sauce is used in a marinade combining lemongrass and fish sauce to provide sour and savory elements, while the caramel contributes a slightly sweet flavor to the ribs. Grilled or roasted, the spareribs are tender yet crisp, with just a bit of char on the surface. In the second recipe, pork spareribs are simmered in a Kho recipe for a homey, soothing dish resembling the Chinese method of red-braising, in which items cook in soy sauce and sugar. Both dishes of spareribs, grilled and simmered, spotlight the essential role that caramel plays in Vietnamese cuisine.

When making any type of caramel, heart and mind are not always united in purpose. Your heart, when it sees those first orange bubbles at the surface signaling that the caramel is about to turn golden brown, desires nothing more than to stand there and watch its completion. Your brain, on the other hand, knows that you have about twenty seconds before the caramel will burn, and therefore become useless. There is a little more leeway for Vietnamese caramel sauce--it's meant to reach a darker hue.

Nevertheless, a completely black shade in the sauce is always irretrievably bad. The first time I made caramel, I grew greedy and waited much too long to plunge my pot into the bowl of cold water so as to stop the cooking. As I tried desperately to rescue my caramel by scraping the bottom, a spurt of the sizzling sugar leaped out of my pot and onto the pale, flabby underside of my arm.

No matter. Most things worth doing can go horribly wrong. Fear not and start over with another batch of sugar and water.

Vietnamese Caramel Sauce, or Nước Màu

Adapted from Into the Vietnamese Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen

About the author: Chichi Wang took her degree in philosophy, but decided that writing about food would be much more fun than writing about Plato. She firmly believes in all things offal, the importance of reading great books, and the necessity of three-hour meals. If she were ever to get a tattoo, it would say "Fat is flavor." Visit her blog, My Chalkboard Fridge.

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