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Milk Street Bowtie Vietnamese-Style Caramel Shrimp

Vietnamese-Style Caramel Shrimp

4 Servings

25 minutes

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The classic Vietnamese method of cooking pork, chicken or fatty fish in a savory-sweet caramel sauce produces deep, umami-rich flavors. In this recipe, we apply the technique to shrimp. We liked the dish when made with both shallots and garlic, as well as with ginger and lemon grass, so use all those ingredients if you have them on hand. Serve with steamed jasmine rice and a stir-fried vegetable to round out the meal.



25 minutes

¼ cup white sugar
3 tablespoons fish sauce
1-2 Fresno OR serrano chilies, stemmed and sliced into thin rings
2 medium shallots, thinly sliced OR 4 medium garlic cloves, minced OR both
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh ginger OR 1 lemon grass stalk, trimmed to the bottom 6 inches, bruised OR both
Ground black pepper
1½ pounds extra-large (21/25 per pound) shrimp, peeled (tails removed) and deveined
Optional garnish: Sliced scallions OR lime wedges OR both
  • ¼

    cup white sugar

  • 3

    tablespoons fish sauce

  • 1-2

    Fresno OR serrano chilies, stemmed and sliced into thin rings

  • 2

    medium shallots, thinly sliced OR 4 medium garlic cloves, minced OR both

  • 2

    teaspoons finely chopped fresh ginger OR 1 lemon grass stalk, trimmed to the bottom 6 inches, bruised OR both

  • Ground black pepper

  • pounds extra-large (21/25 per pound) shrimp, peeled (tails removed) and deveined

  • Optional garnish: Sliced scallions OR lime wedges OR both


Vietnamese-Style Caramel Shrimp

Maria C.
February 28, 2023
Carmen 2-28-2023
This dish is delicious. I put a layer of too thin noodles, on top I put the shrimp. Delicious!!!
Angela L.
July 3, 2023
So delicious and super easy!
The thing I learned the first time I made it was that you have to have everything premeasured prior to doing the sugar & water because the caramel hardens so fast I didn't have time to measure out the fish sauce before it was overdone.
Lisa N.

Omg I have literally tried 3 times!!! My sugar turns into crunchy fluff? No sauce at all.. totally dried out ! What the heck is wrong?

Christine S.

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Lisa N.

I’m SO irritated! I’m trying to make dinner and in my 3 attempts the sugar turns hard and crunchy? No sauce whatsoever? And I turned down the heat on the 3rd try :(( Extremely frustrating

Lynn C.

Hi Lisa -

I'm sorry you are having so much trouble with this recipe. Caramel can be tricky if you haven't made it very much but, once you get the hang of it, it's pretty easy to do! I make our Vietnamese Caramel Chicken recipe just about once a week. The most important thing to keep in mind is *not* to stir the sugar and water while it's cooking, only swirl the pan. When making caramel, especially wet caramel (water and sugar together as opposed to just sugar), your main nemesis will be the sugar's natural tendency to recrystallize. The sugar crystals have jagged edges and, even after liquefying, want to regroup into a solid mass. Stirring a wet caramel encourages these crystals to hook up—and this is what can cause clumping.

Having made a version of this recipe quite a bit I know it can also be hard to "swirl" the pan since there isn't a ton of caramel. Simply tilting it around (lift the pan off the heat so it's easier to move it around) will have the same effect. When the caramel is done and you add the fish sauce (or coconut water in the chicken version) the caramel can harden again but once you put it back over the heat you can stir it at this point and the sugar will easily remelt. The sauce loosens again when you add the protein - the water from the protein will release into the sauce. It will thicken up to more of a glaze in that 30 seconds that you cook the shrimp. I hope this is helpful and, again, we are so sorry you had such difficulty!

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The Milk Street Team

Janelle F.

So frustrated. I have tried this four times and each time the sugar crystallizes. I watched the video and you swirled it with a spatula. I just tried what you said. Swirl it in the pan. Again, it has crystallized. Ugh. My dinner is ruined.

Janelle F.

This is the worst disaster I have ever had with a recipe.

John P.

You really need to update the directions and emphasize DO NOT stir, only swirl. My first try I stirred and failed. Second time I swirled to success. Another recommendation I would make is to reduce the peppers. I love spice but 2 Serranos was too much. My sauce did not thicken as much as expected so I’ll need to try again.

Alan S.

I had the same problem with the sugar but I just turned up the heat and carried on, if you get clumps they will go. Next time I’ll try without the water, it might be easier. The food tasted amazing, but adding fish sauce to something that hot really flash mobs the room with fish sauce aroma. Get if you’re a fan, my wife not so much.

Richard E.

No issues with melting the sugar. I used the water. Recipe was easy to prepare. I rate it a B- for my personal taste. The fish sauce overwhelmed the sugar. If I were to make this again, I would increase the sugar and/or maybe use brown sugar, and decrease the fish sauce.

John L.

I JUST joined, specifically so I can make this recipe. After reading the comments, I am still going to attempt it but will make sure to follow the "no-stir" method to avoid the re-crystallizing of the sugar.
Quick question, though for Lynn C. of the Milk Street Team,,,,, just 30 seconds for the shrimp?

Phil S.

I too had the same issue with first burning it then second sugar crystallizing into a clump of crystals. The third time is a charm! I used half brown sugar have regular sugar and that worked for me.

Art F.

Add me to the list of failures, and I’m a damn good Asian cook. Will eventually try again.

Carol A H.

Worked for us. Just use non stick pan and do not stir, tip the pan. We need a little more liquid at the end perhaps because we did not add 3 Tbs of fish oil. 30 seconds is a little light for cooking the shrimp.

Linda U.

I made this and it didn’t turn out. I was excited to try this. I think I let the caramel get to dark.

Renee M.

. I pushed the sugar water around the pan with a spatula, just like in the video. It turned to white chalk. Twice.

Corinne C.

No instructions on when to add the lemongrass, only when to remove it! It seems as though your instructions are assuming one has watched the video, and gotten full instructions there. The written instructions should work as a stand alone and need to be more detailed. In general.

Sue M.

Glad I read the comments since I’m making this for dinner. Pretty sure the video shows the caramel being manipulated with a spatula. I will definitely swirl and not stir. Will report back with the results.

Sue M.

Okay. I agree with everyone above! And I'm a darn good cook. Something needs reworking in this recipe. Glad I tried it before cooking for guests so I could go to plan b at the last minute.

Judi H.

I have had many culinary failures in my seventy-four years but
Vietnamese Carmel-style Shrimp was not one of them. I am new to “Milk Street,,” having never heard of the site before. I subscribed a week ago and found the recipe on line when I was filling in my information. I followed the recipe exactly the first time and found the fish sauce to be too much. Two days later I made the recipe again, reducing the fish sauce to one tablespoon; We thought it was delicious! I can hardly wait to try the recipe with chicken.
I received my first issue of your magazine this afternoon (May -June). I am so excited and have renewed enthusiasm about cooking. I also especially enjoyed the editorial about Food Science & definitely have a new fan.

Jill B.

Same problem with the sauce. The advert. video has Christpher stirring throughout. Join hoping the subscription could tell me the trick. Maybe a demo video with the swirling technique listed above?

Lynn C.

Hi Jill -

I think Chris got lucky in that video. :-) As I mentioned above, I've made a chicken variation of this recipe a bunch of times and never had issues with clumping, but I always swirl the pan after the sugar has melted. The recipe developer, Courtney Hill, recommends the swirling, but has said using a rubber spatula *may* be ok. Just don't use a whisk. For the swirling technique you can watch Chris and I make this recipe in this episode our Milk Street Television -

Lynn C.

Lynda Lasser Q.

I joined just to make this recipe. The first time, like others, my sugar turned into a big clump. Second time it was better but it never, ever looked like the sauce in this recipe.

Gloria H.

After reading the comments I had no trouble with the sauce. I used a 12" x 6" soup pan with handles to swirl Caramel. I followed the directions. Added both shallots and garlic. Instead of hot peppers I added garlic chili sauce. I added two cups cooked white rice to sauce.
It turned out really good. Will make again. Thank you guys for comments. It helped me a lot... It was the first recipe that I tried from Milk Street.