In Michigan these days, the farmers market stocks are dwindling save for vibrant, colorful displays of winter squash that we don’t know what to do with. Well, roasted squash is always delicious, but for the variety and abundance of squash available, more ought to be done with them. We finally got inspired by daetongbap / Korean rice cooked in bamboo and baked pumpkin oatmeal to make several dishes using the squash as the cooking vessel. Here we introduce a new dish: Thịt kho trong trái bí (Caramelized pork braised in squash). The rich pork flavor, caramelized coconut sugar, fish sauce, and spices permeate the squash while extracting from it a smoky sweetness. The dish taste different and new yet comforting, containing within it home-for-the-holidays flavors both from the New World and the Old Country.
Pork belly was marinated beforehand. In this case, we used thickly sliced black pork belly from the Korean market. Thịt kho normally calls for cubed pieces of pork. However case we were limited in the volume size of our squash / cooking vessel and sliced pork packed more efficiently given the space constraint. (Wonder if there’s a formal mathematical proof for that.) The marinade consisted of fish sauce, sugar, garlic, salt and black pepper in a 5 : 2 : 1.5 : 0.5 : a pinch ratio. For 1 lb of pork, use teaspoons (i.e. 5 teaspoons of fish sauce, 2 of sugar, etc…)
While the pork was marinating, we boiled eggs. Quail eggs would pack better in the limited volume, but we only had access to fresh chicken eggs here in Michigan. We could fit only one chicken egg into the squash.
After experimenting with several squash varieties, we found orange kabocha squash aka sunshine squash worked best with thịt kho. A circle was cut into the top of the squash with an angled knife – the now removable top and stem was the “lid” for our “braise pot”. The seeds inside were scooped out and saved – roasted squash seeds were delicious and much more satisfying to eat than watermelon seeds.
When the egg was hard boiled and peeled, we started packing the squash. Slices of marinated pork formed concentric rings around the boiled egg in the middle. The remaining marinade also ended up in the squash. We then filled up the rest of the volume with coconut soda (a substitute for fresh coconut juice). The squash was placed into a roasting dish. The rest of the coconut soda was set aside.
The squash was baked in a 425 degrees F pre-heated oven for 30 minutes to give a light charring to the squash. We then slow roasted everything at 250 for 5 hours. Every hour or so, some of the reserved coconut soda was first poured into the pan to deglaze it and then spooned up and added to the squash make up for lost liquid volume inside the squash. The squash was almost done when the pork was tender, the sauce was a dark amber color, and the apartment smelled delicious. The oven was turned back up to 350 for the last 30 minutes to give one last caramelization kick. Not sure if the last step did anything, but I have a finishing kick for my PCRs, so I advocated for one here as well.
Thịt kho tàu as caramelized braised pork and eggs is properly known is a staple of home cooked meal in my family but has much more festive associations as well in Bird’s family. In the South, the dish is often served with dưa giá / pickled bean sprouts (and chives) during the Tết holidays. The addition of roasted squash, itself a staple of Thanksgiving dinners, gave the dish a carbohydrate source to replace rice. Eaten holiday-style with dưa giá, the dish had a wide balance of flavors and textures. The crunch and tang of the pickled vegetables provided a refreshing counterpoint to the darkly sweet and tender braised pork, eggs, and squash.
After the meal, munching on roasted squash seeds added to the festive feel evoked by the main dish.
This post is our contribution to the October 2011 edition of Delicious Vietnam, hosted and compiled this month by Bonnibella from Bonnibella.com . Delicious Vietnam was started by Anh of A Food Lover’s Journey and Hong & Kim from Ravenous Couple.