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In Ho Chi Minh City, cooks lacquer chicken with an easy savory-sweet sauce
Milk Street Bowtie Vietnamese Caramel Chicken

Vietnamese Caramel Chicken

Appears in May-June 2020

40 minutes

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Vietnamese Caramel Chicken

Free

The classic Vietnamese technique of simmering meat or fish in dark, bittersweet caramel mixed with fish sauce and a few aromatics yields rich, wonderfully complex savory-sweet flavors. And the technique could hardly be simpler. Instead of a traditional clay pot, we use a 12-inch skillet to make our version of gà kho, or caramel-simmered chicken, and we cook the chicken until the sauce forms a glaze, as we were taught in Vietnam by Peter Franklin, owner of the Ănăn Saigon restaurant. Bruising the lemon grass releases its flavor and fragrance but since the stalk is still whole, it is easy to remove and discard before serving; the simplest way to bruise it is with the blunt side of the blade of a chef’s knife or the butt end of the handle. Serve the chicken with steamed jasmine rice.


Vietnamese Caramel Pork Tenderloin

Cut two 1¼-pound pork tenderloins (trimmed of silver skin) in half lengthwise, then crosswise into ½-inch-thick pieces. Follow the recipe to make the caramel and cook the chilies, lemon grass, ginger and pepper. Add the pork and cook, stirring often, until just cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the pork to a medium bowl, then continue to cook the caramel mixture, stirring occasionally, until thickened to the consistency of honey, about 2 minutes. Off heat, return the pork to the skillet and stir to coat. Discard the lemongrass, then stir in the lime juice. Transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle with the scallions.

Vietnamese Caramel Salmon

Cut 2 pounds 1-inch-thick skinless salmon fillets into 1½-inch cubes. Follow the recipe to make the caramel and cook the chilies, lemon grass, ginger and pepper. Add the salmon and cook, stirring often, until the salmon is just opaque throughout, 5 to 6 minutes. Remove and discard the lemongrass, then stir in the lime juice. Transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle with the scallions.

4-6

Servings

Tip

Don’t be shy when cooking the caramel. Allow it to darken deeply—a smoky, bitter caramel is what gives this dish depth of flavor. It should reach a mahogany hue and will smoke lightly when ready.

40 minutes

¼ cup white sugar
4 tablespoons coconut water or water, divided
3 tablespoons fish sauce
2 Fresno or serrano chilies, stemmed and sliced into thin rings
1 stalk lemon grass, trimmed to the lower 5 or 6 inches, bruised
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh ginger
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed and cut into 1½-inch pieces
1 tablespoon lime juice
2 scallions, thinly sliced on the diagonal
Ingredients
  • ¼

    cup white sugar

  • 4

    tablespoons coconut water or water, divided

  • 3

    tablespoons fish sauce

  • 2

    Fresno or serrano chilies, stemmed and sliced into thin rings

  • 1

    stalk lemon grass, trimmed to the lower 5 or 6 inches, bruised

  • 2

    teaspoons finely chopped fresh ginger

  • 1

    teaspoon ground black pepper

  • 2

    pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed and cut into 1½-inch pieces

  • 1

    tablespoon lime juice

  • 2

    scallions, thinly sliced on the diagonal

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Reviews
Justin R.

Why does the written recipe have Salmon and Pork in it for this recipe, which is a chicken recipe??

Janelle C.

Hi Justin,

If you don't want or have chicken, we've offered variations based on your preferred protein.

Best,
The Milk Street Team

Kari L.

Thank you for your comment! Your comment is currently under moderation and will appear shortly.

Erica K.

I really liked how easy this dish came together. I had all the ingredients prepped since the recipe had things moving very quickly. I did not have the chiles specified but used 3 small dried thai chilies that I had in my pantry (they were so old I am surprised they still packed that much heat even after removing the seeds!). The dish was spicier than I would have liked so I will cut back next time I make the dish but overall it was very good.

Judith M.

I made this with Copper River king and it was exquisite!

Patricia E.

Very good with salmon. I was nervous there wasn’t enough liquid for the sauce, but it was fine. Also cut back on chiles, but I wish it was hotter so won’t next time. Loved by all.

Peter J M.

We put the chicken in and the sauce became super watery. We had to use chicken breast cutlets because of Covid shortages. Would there have been less water in thighs?

Anita M.

Made the pork tenderloin version but I did not end up with the beautiful glossy caramel finish that I see in the chicken photo. It had great flavor but without the caramel. I walked back through the recipe and didn't miss a step so not sure what happened. Perhaps I didn't let the caramel cook long enough but it had become very thick and mahogany colored before I moved forward.

Evan T.

I also had a problem with the caramel sauce staying glossy and coating the meat (chicken thighs in my case). The sauce came together seemingly fine in the beginning, and after adding the fish sauce/water still fine, but after I added the chicken it turned back into a soupy liquid. Delicious, but watery. Is there too much water leaching from the chicken thighs? Is there something I'm missing that is "breaking" the caramel?

Janelle C.

Hi Evan,

It's possible that the chicken thighs broke the sauce. Next time pat them dry before adding to the sauce. Also, be sure that the chicken thighs are boneless and skinless.

Best,
The Milk Street Team

Barry G.

Simply an outstanding dish. Made with boneless skinless chicken thighs. Spicy, but complex and well balanced. Now a regular part of our dinner rotation.

Jen C.

Fantastic flavors, but I also couldn't get the caramel sauce right - it didn't turn mahogany color nor was it glossy. I used pork and when I added it back into the pan, there was liquid in the bowl that I also added in. Per a prior response from Milk Street Team, next time I'll make sure no extra liquid is added in - and there will be a next time as the flavors really are fabulous.

Steven S.

Thank you for your comment! Your comment is currently under moderation and will appear shortly.

John H.

Here’s one for y’all. I have no way to get fresh lemongrass here. How can I incorporate squeezetube refrigerated lemongrass into the recipe? 1tbls split? 1 1/2 tsp in with chicken and 1 1/2 tsp last 2 mins? More? Less? Thanks!

Lynn C.

Hi John -

I have definitely made this in a pinch with the squeezable lemongrass, it works fine! I usually add in a couple of teaspoons when I add the chiles and ginger. Good luck!

Best,
The Milk Street Team

John H.

Lol! I just happen to be making this tonight for the 1st time and thought I’d check to see if there was an answer to my question. Thank you!

John H.

Lol! I just happen to be making this tonight for the 1st time and thought I’d check to see if there was an answer to my question. Thank you!

Rob A.

Looking forward to trying this out, but am a vegetarian. Thinking of substituting Bragg's for the fish sauce and tofu or seitan for the protein. Any gotchas to think of before I just jump in and go for it?

Lynn C.

Hi Rob -

We haven't tested this with tofu or seitan, but I'd make sure to use firm or extra-firm tofu and let it drain on a paper-towel-lined plate for 10 minutes or so after cutting it into pieces. Tofu may release more liquid when added to the caramel sauce so make sure to continue to cook the tofu and sauce until the sauce thickens and coats the tofu. This may take a bit longer than it does with the chicken/fish. Good luck!

Best,
The Milk Street Team

Donna M.

Loved It! Took a little time for the sauce and chicken to carmelize. Definitely a keeper and one I could make every week. Can't wait to make it using salmon.

Erik G.

Made this tonight and turned out great! Word of warning: it is far spicier than expected. This wasn’t a problem for me, but my wife — who is VERY sensitive to heat — thought it was agonizingly hot. I really didn’t think the two Fresnos (which I de-seeded) would have driven the heat level up that much.

One suggestion to the people above who have complained of the sauce getting too watery after adding the thighs: I salted the chicken thighs after I cut them up with about a half tablespoon of kosher salt and placed them in the refrigerator about two hours before cooking. This is generally a step I do to help season the meat and keep it moist from a high heat process, but it most likely also eliminated some of the wateriness people are describing.

Huyen P.

I made this tonight with salmon but half the amount of salmon. Therefore, I thought I would half the liquid amount. Don't do that! I ruined the first time I tried this when doing half the amount of the liquid. The sauce burned and I had to start over. The second time, I did the full sauce recipe and when I took it off the heat to add the fish sauce and water, I kept it off the heat when dissolving the fish sauce. Then I put the pan back on the heat on Medium so it wouldn't burn. That turned out much better and was delicious! I'm glad I didn't use 2lb of salmon as I don't think it would have been enough sauce.

Tricia T.

First meal I've done from here and even the picky 10 year old is eating it. I doubled everything and it came together as expected.

James P.

For those having problems with the sauce becoming watery after adding the chicken or pork, it is likely the type of chicken or pork you bought causing the problem. Try to find air chilled, not water chilled chicken, and natural or minimally processed pork, not enhanced pork. Most chicken is water chilled and retains 4% to 6% or more of the water it was chilled in. That water comes out when you cook your chicken in the sauce and makes it watery. Air chilled chicken is, well, air chilled, and retains no excess water. Look at the small print on your chicken and it will tell you the approximate excess water retained. Air chilled chicken is almost always labeled as air chilled. Similarly, enhanced pork is injected with water, salt and sometimes other additives. It has 7% to 10% or more added water which comes out to make your sauce watery. While the word "Natural" on a label doesn't mean much, most pork labeled "natural", or "minimally processed" usually has no added retained water. Again look for the small print, which will tell you if there is added retained water. Hope this helps some.

Susan Cash C.

Hi I wanted to make this with palm sugar instead of white sugar. As palm sugar is already brown, is there a specific temperature I should be looking for to attain the proper carmelization? Thanks

Lynn C.

Hi Susan -

We haven't tested this with palm sugar, but we would likely recommend against it unless you are really skilled at making caramel. Palm sugar burns at a lower temperature than refined granulated sugar so it will be much trickier to achieve the proper level of caramelization.

Best,
The Milk Street Team


Down arrow

Vietnamese Caramel Chicken

Get Ready to Cook

4-6

Servings

40 minutes

Tip

Don’t be shy when cooking the caramel. Allow it to darken deeply—a smoky, bitter caramel is what gives this dish depth of flavor. It should reach a mahogany hue and will smoke lightly when ready.

Ingredients
  • ¼

    cup white sugar

  • 4

    tablespoons coconut water or water, divided

  • 3

    tablespoons fish sauce

  • 2

    Fresno or serrano chilies, stemmed and sliced into thin rings

  • 1

    stalk lemon grass, trimmed to the lower 5 or 6 inches, bruised

  • 2

    teaspoons finely chopped fresh ginger

  • 1

    teaspoon ground black pepper

  • 2

    pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed and cut into 1½-inch pieces

  • 1

    tablespoon lime juice

  • 2

    scallions, thinly sliced on the diagonal

Step 1 of 3

Prepare Caramel

¼
cup white sugar
2
tablespoons coconut water or water

In a 12-inch skillet, combine the sugar and 2 tablespoons of the coconut water. Cook over medium-high, occasionally swirling the pan to help the sugar dissolve and to encourage even browning, until the caramel is mahogany in color and smokes lightly, 4 to 6 minutes.

Step 2 of 3

Combine Ingredients In Skillet

3
tablespoons fish sauce
2
tablespoons coconut water or water
2
Fresno or serrano chilies, stemmed and sliced into thin rings
1
stalk lemon grass, trimmed to the lower 5 or 6 inches, bruised
2
teaspoons finely chopped fresh ginger
1
teaspoon ground black pepper
2
pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed and cut into 1½-inch pieces

Remove the pan from the heat and add the fish sauce along with the remaining 2 tablespoons coconut water; the mixture will bubble vigorously and the caramel will harden in spots.


Bring to a simmer over medium and cook, stirring, until the hardened bits have dissolved. Add the chilies, lemon grass, ginger and pepper, then cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.


Increase to medium-high and stir in the chicken. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the sauce reduces and clings to the chicken, 10 to 14 minutes.

Step 3 of 3

Finish and Serve

1
tablespoon lime juice
2
scallions, thinly sliced on the diagonal

Remove from the heat, then discard the lemongrass. Stir in the lime juice. Transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle with the scallions.

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Done!

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