It looks rather like sorghum molasses, or espresso with a swirled froth of reddish gold crema on top.
But it is neither of these things.
It is dark, it is deep, it consists of two ingredients, and while it is simple to make it is not easy.
And, it is an essential component to many Vietnamese home cooked foods.
It is called nuoc mau–which literally means “colored water,” though in English, we call it caramel sauce.
And it doesn’t go on ice cream.
It is what gives depth of flavor and color to kho, which are earthy, homey braises of meats, tofu or seafood. Salty with fish sauce, these dishes are meant to be eaten with plenty of rice, but the salt flavor is balanced by the smoke-tinged sweetness of this home made, darkly browned caramel sauce.
It is also used to flavor other dishes, including quick stir fries.
It is not difficult to make, as it only requires sugar and water, but technique is important. One must use medium-low heat, or risk burning the sugar black, and one must pay attention to when to stir and when not to stir. One can melt and brown the sugar without using water to dissolve it, but that method is much trickier and risks the formation of candy chips–incompletely melted sugar glommed together which will burn to the bottom of the pan if given half a chance.
I found that it helped that I had done pulled sugar work in my dessert classes in culinary school; some of the techniques I learned there to deal with melted sugar translated perfectly to the making of nuoc mau. It also helped to follow a detailed recipe that described very carefully and accurately the stages of browning the sugar was going to go through before the sauce was done. (I found that the best recipe is Andrea Q. Nguyen’s from her excellent cookbook, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen.)
At any rate, here is my way of putting this simple, but not easy staple of the Vietnamese kitchen together, complete with many photographs illustrating the stages the sugar goes through on its way from crystalline white grains to a reddish-brown, richly-scented sauce.
Nuoc Mau (Vietnamese Caramel Sauce)
1 cup white sugar
3/4 cup water
Place the sugar and 1/4 cup of water into a deep, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium low heat. Stir with a metal spoon until the sugar dissolves into a milky-looking liquid, as below.
As the sugar syrup heats up, small, glassy-looking bubbles will begin to form around the edges of the saucepan, as seen above. At this point, stop stirring, and DO NOT stir again. (And please, never, ever, use anything other than a metal spoon to stir melting sugar. Please never use a rubber spatula. Please. I watched someone in culinary school melt a rubber spatula into boiling sugar once. It was ugly and smelled really awful. Don’t do that–it is a hideous mess to clean up.)
If you stir again, you will cause the sugar to seize up and recrystallize, and that will not be a good thing. From here on out, if you need to stir the sugar syrup, do so by lifting the saucepan and swirling it in the air while keeping it level. This will cause some syrup to creep up the sides of the pan. In order to chase those droplets down before they have a chance to cool and recrystallize, take a pastry brush, dampen the bristles in the remaining half cup of water, and use it to brush the syrup back down into the pan.
As the bubbles form, they will head toward the center of the pan, where they will grow in size. Then, the entire surface of the sugar will be bubbling vigorously with glassy spheres and domes as it simmers merrily along.
After a few minutes, around the edges of the pan, you will see the syrup begin to darken slightly, going from clear to the color of champagne. Swirl the pan to even the color, and set it back on the stove. Eventually, the color around the edges will darken to a lager beer, then a honey color, as seen below.
Notice the color in the lower left-hand portion of the pot is more of a honey brown while the rest is more of a pale color. That tells us one of two things: either my pan has a place where it is thinner there, so it gets hotter faster, or that burner is pouring out more heat in that spot. At any rate, as the color darkens on the edge, lift the pan and carefully swirl once or twice to even the color out, then set it back on the fire. If you swirled a lot of syrup up the sides of the pan, brush them down.
Once the color of the syrup is the color of dark tea color, start watching it very carefully. This is where you come to the place where you may burn the sugar beyond use.
After the sugar has been simmering for about twenty minutes, a thin haze of smoke will steadily rise. Turn the exhaust fan over your stove on or open the windows. Watch the sugar closely as it will darken very quickly–second by second it will darken.
The sugar will take on a scarlet reddish tone–almost like wine, but with more of a yellow cast. The bubbles will take on a vivid burned orange color like the color of maple leaves in autumn or a seashore sunset–like the photograph above. At this point, swirl again and take note of the color of the syrup under the bubbles.
When it takes on the color of very dark coffee or molasses, turn off the heat and all at once add the other 1/2 cup of water. This will cause a dramatic bubbling, hissing, sputtering reaction as the sugar syrup rapidly cools. Just stay back from it and watch from afar.
Where the water pours directly into the syrup, the sugar will seize up, but don’t fret over it. It will melt again in a few seconds.
Heat the caramel back up, and stir once again with a metal spoon until the solid bits dissolve back into the syrup. At this point, turn the heat off again, and set the pan aside, allowing it to cool for about ten minutes. At this point, the bubbles will subside to an orange-red foam over the surface of the caramel that will slowly dwindle in size as the liquid cools down.
After ten minutes, pour the sauce into a heavy glass jar, seal it tightly and allow it to cool the rest of the way.
I store mine in the fridge, but you can just leave yours in a cool, dark cabinet if you like.
It will keep for a very long time–some say forever.
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