A Super-Simple Vietnamese Pantry Dinner—for Chicken, Tofu, Whatever You've Got

This week’s Genius Recipe streamlines a foundational technique called kho, which produces a powerful, umami-packed sauce.

March 18, 2020

Every week in Genius Recipes—often with your help!—Food52 Creative Director and lifelong Genius-hunter Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that will change the way you cook.

If you’re lost at the fridge, staring at raw material that you’re hoping to conjure into a comforting dinner—the chicken thighs you grabbed without a plan, the frozen fish fillets from the back of the freezer, the tofu that’s about to expire—this recipe is here to take charge.

Photo by Julia Gartland

It’s a streamlined version of the foundational Vietnamese technique called kho (or dry-braise), which simply means quickly braising in a small amount of liquid, often sweet-salty fish sauce caramel.

Traditionally, this dish would involve melting palm sugar into a bubbling caramel before sizzling in fish sauce—but Charles Phan, the chef-owner behind the legendary Slanted Door restaurant family, created a riff for anyone who doesn’t have ready access to palm sugar (or the mental space to make caramel tonight).

Photo by Julia Gartland

The best news, especially in this moment as we’re hunkering down and cooking from the pantry stores we have, is that kho is a very flexible technique, cooked for generations in Vietnam in times of scarcity and plenty. Charles's streamlined version is no different. Simply follow this blueprint:

  1. Warm up your sauce in one little pot—in this recipe, Charles calls for brown sugar, fish sauce, water, and rice vinegar, but you can swap in other acids or sweeteners as your pantry allows. You could even work around the fish sauce if you need to. While not a perfect substitute, soy sauce or liquid aminos should still bring enough funky salt and umami to morph into a powerfully delicious sauce. Just remember if you’re going off-recipe to be sure to taste and fiddle with the sauce till it’s a balance of sweet and salty that you want to keep eating, with a bit of brightening acid.

  2. Soften some aromatics (like ginger, garlic, shallots, fresh or dried chiles, lots of chunky black pepper) in another, bigger pot. Charles likes a lot of ginger, so if you’re missing that, throw in a big pinch of powdered ginger instead, if you have it lying around.

  3. To the softened aromatic pot, toss in your star ingredient—blander proteins like chicken, fish, or tofu really benefit from this feisty sauce, but it’s hard to imagine many ingredients that wouldn’t. I'd love it with vegetables like cauliflower, brussels sprouts, or hard squashes, too.

  4. Pour in a small amount of the sauce, then stir here and there while it bubbles to cook everything through. Give it a taste, and decide if you want more sauce.

  5. Serve with rice (or any other carb that will catch sticky sauce).
Photo by Julia Gartland

You can save any lingering fish sauce caramel to makeover more puzzle pieces from the fridge another day—in fact, Charles recommends making an extra big batch of the sauce to keep in a jar in the fridge, so that a good dinner is that much closer.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Another question on the fish sauce, can miso be substituted? I've got both red and white, and have been experimenting with them lately, since it's a new ingredient for me. Thanks! Trying to keep safe in Atlanta, praying for NYC (my daughter lives there) and all our neighbors across the world! 🌎”
— Maria

If you have more questions about substitutions, I’m here, and I hope these 11 more pantry dinner ideas will come in handy. Please take care of yourselves and each other, and let us know how we can help.

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Perhaps something perfect for beginners? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]—thank you, as-ever, to editor, stylist, and super-tipster Ali Slagle for this one.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Karolina Poplawska
    Karolina Poplawska
  • 350cmb
  • Maria
  • Rosalind Paaswell
    Rosalind Paaswell
  • Cooking day
    Cooking day
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Karolina P. February 15, 2021
This dish was delicious and very adaptable. I didn't have brown sugar so I made caramel out of white sugar. I also didn't have shallots so I left them out. Great dish that you can whip up quickly with the ingredients you have and better than the sum of it's parts. Will be this making again! Thank you for sharing!
350cmb March 28, 2020
Is there a sub for rice vinegar? Thank you!!!
Kristen M. March 28, 2020
Another vinegar would be just fine here—something in the white wine family, or cider vinegar would work well. The other flavors are much stronger, so the subtleties of the vinegar aren't too important.
Maria March 21, 2020
Another question on the fish sauce, can miso be substituted? I've got both red and white, and have been experimenting with them lately, since it's a new ingredient for me. Thanks!

Trying to keep safe in Atlanta, praying for NYC (my daughter lives there) and all our neighbors across the world! 🌎
Chau K. March 21, 2020
I’ve never tried it with miso, but I think it would be quite nice. This is a dish we’ve cooked for decades, and it’s very tolerant of adaptation. I would take a tablespoon of miso and add twice as much water to make a thickish paste. Best of luck in cooking and for your family through this!
Kristen M. March 21, 2020
Thank you, Chau—great call! Maria, please let us know how it goes. One great thing about this method is that you have a couple chances to taste and adjust, which makes it much easier to get something you really like by the end. I think I'd go for red miso here, which is saltier and more flavorful.
Maria March 22, 2020
Thank you! I will be trying this soon, as the recipe sounds delicious.
Maria March 22, 2020
Thanks for the tip! I am excited to try this recipe soon.
sassygirl711 March 23, 2020
i like umami sauce in place of fish sauce,
as well as vegan fysh sauce (green label). it’s great!
Rosalind P. March 19, 2020
asking again -- hope someone sees and answers: If using tofu, is the process exactly the same?
Kristen M. March 19, 2020
Yes, if you're using firm or extra-firm tofu, but if you have silken, you'll want to just warm it in the sauce without stirring too much or it will break down a lot. Thank you for your patience, Rosalind.
Brown C. March 19, 2020
I would follow the same process. Be sure to use firm tofu, cut into bite-sized cubes. Optional step - I like to panfry tofu cubes in a bit of oil to give them a "skin"; this helps to keep them intact when stirfrying later.

For added texture, l would toss in some firm veggies, eg. sliced carrots, broccoli or cauliflower florets, say a minute or two after adding the sauce.
Rosalind P. March 19, 2020
Time to say thank you to you and your extraordinary, warm, cheerful, generous, expert, humane, humble, team. Your site is the best; your techniques accessible and successful. And the food just always brings delight, no matter what my skills lack. I could go on; and this won't be my last thank you. But today it feels so, so important.
Kristen M. March 19, 2020
This is so nice to hear, Rosalind—I'm so glad we can be helpful, especially right now. (And I've never appreciated our community helping each other out more—thanks Brown Cow for weighing in!)
Cooking D. March 19, 2020
What do you think about adding a splash of toasted sesame oil to this sauce after cooking it?
Kristen M. March 19, 2020
Love it!
Rosalind P. March 19, 2020
Substituting tofu for chicken: identical procedures? Thanks
Angelia M. March 18, 2020
What can be substituted for fish sauce? I have seafood allergy and can’t have it but this recipe sounds interesting and would like to try it.
Kristen M. March 19, 2020
See the article above (point 1) on my notes about subbing soy sauces (tamari counts) and liquid aminos for fish sauce—most important thing is to add the sauce in a small amount at first and adjust to your taste!
Roshni B. March 18, 2020
Can I use vegetable oil instead of fish oil?
Roshni B. March 18, 2020
Also, can I substitute shallot for onion?
Kristen M. March 19, 2020
Absolutely -- any onion-like thing can work for the shallot (any onion, scallion, more garlic even). And there's no fish oil, but if you're looking for a fish sauce substitute, see above on my notes about soy sauces (tamari counts) and liquid aminos. Vegetable oil (or any neutral oil) is a great sub for canola oil if that's what you were wondering.
Roshni B. March 29, 2020
Oops I meant sauce! I apologize. I was looking for a substitute for fish sauce.
Barry March 18, 2020
I have palm sugar. Can I make the same and sub the palm sugar for brown sugar 1:1? Can also make with brown sugar.
Kristen M. March 18, 2020
Yes, you can sub 1:1!
Barry March 19, 2020
Kristen — Thanks for hanging in there with us, especially the ones who are not experts in the kitchen (me!). Stay healthy and safe!
Kristen M. March 20, 2020
I'm so happy to do it, Barry—we're all learning together! Be well.
Betty S. March 18, 2020
I have only chicken breast in my freezer. Would this work if I thaw and slice it?
Kristen M. March 18, 2020
It will indeed—you might just want to watch a little more closely to not overcook it, but even if you do, this sauce cures all.
Ellen March 18, 2020
I have everything but the Thai Chiles (fresh or dried) but have different chili sauces or pastes. What can I use to substitute? Thx!
Kristen M. March 18, 2020
Oh, you're in great shape then! Honestly, anything that will add a little heat would work (I've done both fresh jalapeños and dried chiles—both were good), but to be closest go for something that won't bring too much of its own extra competing flavors besides heat.
Barbt1956 March 18, 2020
Thanks for asking, Ellen, that was exactly my question!
Florence N. March 18, 2020
Hi, what are good veggie side dishes to go with this chicken dish? Link to the recipe, please :)
Kristen M. March 18, 2020
I would do something light and green—a smashed cucumber salad like this; Or some stir-fried greens like this (minus the squid):
M.B. March 18, 2020
So I grabbed a Savoy cabbage in my shopping stock up, do you think cabbage and black beans would work in this - luckily I have fresh ginger and most of the other ingredients including fish sauce.
Kristen M. March 18, 2020
Sure! I think both the cabbage and the beans would drink up more of the sauce more quickly than a denser protein like chicken or tofu, so I'd start with not too much sauce and cook it not very long before tasting.
M.B. March 18, 2020
Thanks, I’ll give it a go! And hey, thanks for all the amazing community you and your colleagues create at Food52, my wife and I turn to you guys regularly for inspiration.
Linda March 18, 2020
I made the sauce, adding the minced garlic and simmering. I used scallops and brown rice noodles. I finished the noodles in the sauce with the scallops. No cilantro so I sliced scallions instead. Delicious!
Kristen M. March 18, 2020
Yum—way to go, Linda! Thanks so much for sharing.
Kristen M. March 18, 2020
Thanks so much, M.B.—we love doing it.