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Low sodium Vietnamese braised pork with eggs (thịt kho trứng)

This is a traditional Vietnamese dish my family made every year at Tết, the Vietnamese celebration of the Lunar New Year. It's one of my favorite foods, but unfortunately it's loaded in sodium from the fish sauce, salt, and/or soy sauce that is typically used. My low sodium version is tender, sweet, savory, and a little spicy with just a fraction of the sodium.

Servings: Makes 6 servings

Sodium: 107 mg sodium per serving

Time: 2 hours


1/2 pound pork belly, cut in 2 inch cubes

1 pound pork shoulder, cut in 2 inch cubes

3 hard boiled eggs, peeled

1 tablespoon nước màu (see below)

1 tablespoon molasses

8 cloves of garlic, plus 4 cloves, minced

3 shallots, sliced into thin rounds

1 12-ounce can of 7-up

2-inch piece of ginger, peeled but left whole

1 tablespoon unsalted mustard (like Westbrae's) or 1 teaspoon ground dry mustard

2 tablespoons of sherry or unseasoned rice vinegar

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1-2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper, plus more for serving

a tiny pinch of bonito flakes (about a teaspoon)

5-6 dried red chilis (optional, or use any other fresh or crush chilis to taste)

A note on ingredients:

* Nước màu is a Vietnamese caramel sauce that's made by cooking sugar until it turns into a bittersweet caramel. It's simple (just heat sugar and water) but not necessarily easy to get right on one try. So if you don't already have it, or don't feel up to it, substitute with 2 teaspoons molasses and then adjust the sugar. I like Andrea Nguyen's recipe and it works really well. The only tip I have is once the sugar is dissolved, don't stir it very much while it's cooking or else it will crystallize.

* This dish is traditionally made with pork belly which is very low in sodium (35 mg for 4 ounces). The only pork belly I can get these days is very, very fatty and not the kind you want to eat too much of, so I use part pork belly and part pork shoulder, which is pretty fatty, too. Use whatever combination suits you.

* This dish is commonly made with Coco Rico coconut soda but that can be hard to get. Sodas like 7-up or Sprite are good substitutes. I've seen recipes where people use Coke or coconut water/juice, but I've never tried either. Do not use coconut milk, or anything else that's creamy. Here's what Coco Rico looks like. I'm sure this image brings back lots of memories for Vietnamese-Americans like me.

* There are a lot of different sugar sources in this dish. I find that the white granulated sugar is necessary even though you've already got the caramel sauce, molasses, and soda. Start with a little, cook the meat for a bit and add more to taste.

* If you don't have bonito flakes, you can omit this ingredient. I add just a tiny pinch so you don't taste it, but it adds another dimension to the dish. If you love the flavor, go ahead and add more.

1) Boil eggs, make the nước màu (if using): boil and peel 3 eggs as you would if you were eating them on their own. I like to boil mine for 9 minutes for this dish. The whites should be very firm and the yolks are firm but still soft. If you're making nước màu, you can do this well in advance because it keeps for a long time (months at least...).

2) Prepare and clean the pork: cut pork into 2-inch cubes and clean the meat but filling a pot with just enough water to cover the pork, and then cooking it until it just starts to boil. Remove the pork from the pot, rinse the pork under cold water, and return to a clean pot for braising.

3) Braise on low heat for about 90 minutes: combine all the ingredients with the cleaned pork, reserving just 4 cloves of garlic. Stir to combine and then heat, covered, until the liquid comes to a boil. Then turn the heat down to low and simmer until the pork is tender, about 90 minutes, stirring occasionally. The meat should be very tender, but not fall-apart tender. Here's where you can hold back on the sugar until the meat has cook a bit, then taste and see if you want to add more.

4) Add eggs, and then raw garlic: once the meat is tender, add the hard boiled eggs and simmer for another 15 minutes. If you're braising in a shallow pan like I am, the eggs won't be fully submerged in the braising liquid. In that case, turn the eggs over halfway through the 15 minutes to braise both sides. Finally, remove the pan from the stove and stir in 4 cloves of raw, minced garlic. Serve hot with lots of rice and more black pepper (white pepper is great, too!).

This dish is often served with pickled mustard greens. I haven't figured out how to pickle mustard greens without using a ton of salt, so we eat this with quick pickled cucumbers. To make this, combine 4 cloves sliced garlic, 2 tablespoons sugar, 1/2 cup unseasoned rice vinegar, 1 tablespoon sesame oil, and any spicy chili peppers you might like. Then add 4-5 sliced Persian cucumbers and let them sit, refrigerated, in the vinegar mixture for at least 3-4 hours, overnight if possible. Or serve with a side of pickled carrots and daikon.

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