Thit kho tàu is a delicious and popular home-cooked meal, also perfect for special occasions like Vietnamese Lunar New Year. The fattiness of the pork belly, caramelization from the sugar in the marinade, and the coconut water makes this dish taste very luxurious. At the same time, the sharpness of the fish sauce and fresh garnishes prevent it from feeling too heavy. Besides marinating the pork overnight, there aren’t too many steps beside waiting for the dish to braise, so it’s a stress-free dish to have on the stove amidst the usual holiday madness of a large dinner party. The cooked dish also benefits from sitting overnight, so if you are particularly pressed for time, you can simply reheat it right before serving.
My rendition differs slightly from the traditional recipe, as I don’t add a caramel sauce; I think the braising liquid has enough depth and richness with the overnight marinade alone. I also add the eggs to the braising liquid only 15 minutes before the dish is finished (many recipes instruct you to let them simmer together for at least an hour); this way they aren’t super hard-boiled, and the yolks remain slightly creamy.
Notes: When choosing the pork belly, I look for a piece with a good equal ratio of fat to meat (you don’t want it to be too fatty). The spice mixture for the marinade is essentially a Chinese five-spice recipe, so you can always increase the amount, and save the rest for a later use; or use a pre-made five-spice mix. Also, use Chinese soy sauce; not Japanese.
In a dry pan, toast the spices separately over low heat until they are fragrant (do not let them burn). Combine the spices and use a grinder or mortar and pestle to grind them into a fine powder.
Pat the pork belly dry with paper towels and cut into 1-inch thick slices. Transfer the pieces to a large bowl and rub in the spice mixture and palm sugar. Add the fish sauce and soy sauces then mix with your hands to combine. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and let marinate in the fridge overnight.
Set a large cast iron (or heavy bottomed) pot over medium-high heat and add canola oil. Sear the pork slices on both sides and then set aside (remember to reserve the leftover marinade). Lower the heat to a medium-low flame and gently sauté the shallots. After 2 minutes, add the grated garlic. Add a splash of the coconut water, scraping the bottom of the pan to help deglaze and continue to sauté until the shallots are soft and translucent.
Place the pork belly back into the pot in a single layer then add the reserved marinade and remaining coconut water—but slowly, and in increments. The liquid level should not cover the pork completely—it should come up to a little more than half the sides of the meat. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. Once this happens, lower to a simmer and skim the fat that has risen to the surface. Cover with a lid and simmer for about 3 hours, skimming occasionally, until the pork belly is very tender.
While the pork belly is braising, place a large pot of water over high heat. When the water comes to a boil, add the eggs and lower the heat slightly (you don’t want them to be bouncing around too crazily in the water). After 6 minutes, remove the egg and hold them under cold running water until they have cooled, then peel. Add the cooked eggs to the braising liquid for the last 15 minutes of cooking, nestling them amongst the pieces of pork belly.
Serve over cooked jasmine rice, garnishing with fresh cilantro and red chilies.