Why It Works
- Cooking palm sugar to a dark caramel increases its nuttiness and complexity.
- Marinating soft-boiled eggs in the stew allows them to absorb flavor without overcooking.
The smell of the Thai-Chinese staple moo palo immediately transports me to the streets of Bangkok, where the aroma of pork stewed in an aromatic bath of warm spices is everywhere.
Stews are all about layering flavors, and the first layering step in making this one is searing the pork belly. This browns the meat, which gives it some additional complexity from Maillard reactions, but it also renders the ample fat from the belly to use as frying oil for other ingredients in subsequent steps. This leads to a stew that is subtly imbued from top to bottom with porcine flavor.
Moo palo gets its characteristic sweetness from palm sugar. Palm sugar is inherently caramelly, but you can intensify that flavor by caramelizing it in the rendered lard, which imparts deeper nutty notes and a darker color to the stew. Once the sugar becomes bubbly and seems like it's about to burn, I add five-spice powder, star anise, cinnamon, and a paste made from coriander roots, garlic, and salt and cook them all just until they become aromatic. (The addition of the paste, with its relatively higher water content, rapidly lowers the temperature of the frying sugar and helps to prevent it from burning.)
Finally, I add the browned pork belly back to the pot along with water and the seasoning sauces: Thai thin soy sauce, Thai black soy sauce, Thai oyster sauce, and Thai fish sauce. I am very specific about saying Thai before each of these sauces because this recipe was specifically developed using Thai sauces. Thai black soy sauce is inherently sweeter than a Chinese black soy sauce, which is on the saltier side, and as such, using non-Thai versions of these sauces will give you a completely different result.
Let’s talk about the eggs, which are as desirable as the pork in this dish: 99% of the time, the eggs in moo palo are cooked and stewed along with the pork. This can be quite good, but it produces a very long-cooked egg, which isn't my preference. For the still-jammy yolks I desire, I first cook the eggs separately for about 6 minutes, and then peel them immediately. Once the pork is soft, I add the peeled eggs to the stew to let them soak up flavor for about 30 minutes to an hour off-heat. This allows them to absorb flavor without an extended cooking time.
You can let them linger in the stew even longer before serving, since this is a dish that gets better as it sits. If you have the time or are planning a big Thai spread for a party, this is an excellent choice for preparing in advance, at least overnight and up to three days. The eggs will get even better if they sit in the stew for longer.
Since this dish is rich and sweet, it's nice to serve it with a simple condiment that's spicy, garlicky, and sour to balance out the flavor. Here, the condiment comes together quickly in a mortar and pestle and is easily scalable if you want more. While you can serve the stew all by itself with some steamed rice, it's also a great addition to a larger spread. I suggest pairing moo palo with a spicy dish, like khua kling gai or gaeng som pla, steamed Chinese broccoli, and, of course, Thai jasmine rice.
- For the Dipping Sauce:
- 2 small garlic cloves (6g), peeled
- Kosher salt
- 6 fresh Thai red chiles (6g), stemmed
- 1 tablespoon (12g) sugar
- 3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon (50ml) white distilled vinegar
- For the Stew:
- 1 teaspoon (5g) whole black peppercorns
- 4 coriander roots (7g), cleaned (see note)
- 5 small garlic cloves (15g), peeled
- 1 teaspoon (3g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt, divided; for table salt, use half as much by volume or the same weight
- 1 teaspoon (5ml) vegetable oil
- 2 pounds (910g) boneless, skin-on pork belly, cut into 2-inch strips, then cut into 1 1/2-inch-thick slices
- 4 tablespoons (100g) palm sugar (see note)
- 2 cinnamon sticks (12g)
- 3 pieces whole star anise (2g)
- 1/2 tablespoon (4g) Chinese five-spice powder
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) Thai fish sauce
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) Thai thin soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon (15g) Thai oyster sauce
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) Thai black soy sauce
- 7 large soft-boiled eggs, peeled
- Cooked jasmine rice, for serving
For the Dipping Sauce: In a granite mortar and pestle, combine garlic, a small pinch of kosher salt, and chiles and pound until a coarse paste forms, about 30 seconds. Add sugar and continue to pound into a mostly fine paste (some larger pieces are okay), about 1 minute. Stir in vinegar, transfer to a small bowl, and set aside. Wipe out mortar and pestle.
For the Stew: In now-empty mortar and pestle, add peppercorns and pound until fine, about 20 seconds. Add coriander roots, garlic, and salt and continue to pound until a fine paste has formed, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl and set aside.
In a Dutch oven, heat oil over high heat until shimmering. Add pork belly and cook until golden brown on all sides, about 5 minutes. Transfer pork belly to a medium bowl and set aside.
Reduce heat to low. Add palm sugar and cook, stirring and scraping bottom occasionally, until caramelized and deep golden brown, about 3 minutes.
Stir in cinnamon sticks, star anise, five-spice powder, and reserved pepper-coriander paste and cook until the aroma is released, about 15 seconds; you may need to move the pan off the heat to avoid burning the sugar. Return pork belly to pot and stir until thoroughly coated with the caramelized sugar sauce, about 1 minute.
Add 10 cups (2.3L) water and bring to a boil over high heat. Once boiling, skim any scum that accumulates on the surface, then stir in fish sauce, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and black soy sauce. Reduce heat to maintain a simmer, cover, and cook until the pork is tender, about 1 hour 20 minutes. Remove from heat and add eggs, stirring to make sure they’re fully coated in the sauce. Cover and let stand to allow eggs to absorb sauce, about 30 minutes.
Serve immediately with dipping sauce and cooked jasmine rice.
Granite mortar and pestle, Dutch oven
The roots of fresh coriander (a.k.a. cilantro) provide a slight herbal note to curry pastes, but are unfortunately hard to find in the US, as they are often cut off from the stems before going to market (though local farmers markets in the summer and fall often have coriander with the roots still attached). Coriander roots can also be found at Southeast Asian markets. If you can't find the herb with the roots still attached, you can either use the tender stems, which won't make too much of a difference in this particular curry, or omit it altogether. And, to clarify, although they are called coriander "roots," Thai cooks usually also use some of the tender green stem.
If you can't find palm sugar, you can substitute with brown sugar.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Moo palo can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days. In fact, it tastes better when made ahead of time and allowed to sit in the refrigerator. To reheat, you can warm it in the microwave or on the stovetop over medium-low heat.