Given the speed at which we pass from one thing to the next, it’s no wonder that few things hold timeless value anymore. The digital age has transformed how we chronicle our lives and interact with one another. Our compulsion to document just about everything, including our most mundane routine activities and banal thoughts, has become second nature. Reaching for our mobile devices to digitally capture everything, however, diminishes the significance of any given moment, because we’ve become so fixated on the images and videos themselves, rather than savoring the instant.
Even our epicurean experiences have begun to evolve. The visual aspect of dishes often become the focal point of meals, perhaps even overshadowing the gustative pleasures of eating at times. Meals are no longer simply an intimate occasion shared with close ones, but rather something that we invite millions of online strangers to see. I sometimes wonder if the now customary ritual of snapping photos of everything we eat is starting to blur our recollections of these moments. Is it changing how we catalogue our memories since we no longer need to commit anything to memory anymore?
Though I’m speaking broadly, everything does seem to be increasingly more forgettable nowadays (at least for me it does). Nonetheless, there are still certain dishes that remain inextricably linked to defining moments in my life, dishes whose aroma alone can instantly transport me back to moments that reside in the deepest recesses of my memory. Among those dishes is thịt kho nước dừa, which is pork belly and eggs simmered in coconut juice and nước mắm. Occasionally, a singular bite of this pork belly will take me right back to our house in New Orleans that summer thirty-one years ago when my family’s life was prematurely interrupted and irreversibly changed our trajectory. Or, I’ll be back in my grandma’s kitchen in California just before my move to Texas as my mom was showing me step-by-step how to make this dish while I took copious notes of her every instruction.
What are some of your most distinct food memories?
Thịt Kho Nước Dừa
1.2 kg pork belly, cut into 5 cm cubes
¼ onion, finely diced
2-3 large cloves of garlic, minced
½ tsp of freshly ground pepper
1 tbsp sugar
80 ml fish sauce
300 ml coconut juice*
1.5 tbsp nước màu
1.25 L of hot water
6 hard boiled eggs
Before cutting the pork belly into cubes, scrape the surface of the skin with the edge of a knife with rapid strokes to remove gunk. After cubing the pork, parboil in a 4-5 L pot for about 10 minutes. Then, pour out all of the scum that has risen to the surface as well as the meat. Thoroughly rinse out the pot and each morsel of meat. Return the meat to the pot, spacing each morsel evenly along the bottom of the pot. Pour in the coconut juice and simmer over medium high heat, occasionally turning the meat to ensure that all sides are cooked in the juice.
While the pork belly simmers in the coconut juice, combine in a small bowl the diced onions, minced garlic, fish sauce, sugar and ground pepper. Give the mixture a stir and set aside.
Once the coconut juice has completely reduced and started to caramelize, drizzle the nuoc mau over the meat. Then add the fish sauce mix and enough hot water to cover the pork belly by 2 cm (about 1.25 L). A word of warning for the uninitiated, the fish sauce mix will give off a strong odor the minute it is added to the pot, so you might want to turn the range hood to maximum. Cover and simmer over medium-low heat for about an hour.
Remove the lid and turn the heat up to medium-high. Peel the hard-boiled eggs from their shell and add to the pot. Simmer for another 15-20 minutes to allow some of the liquid to reduce, leaving enough liquid to cover half of the pork belly. The liquid can be further reduced if you prefer a more concentrated sauce. The eggs will likely only be half-submerged, so turn each of them after about 7-8 minutes to ensure that they are uniformly colored by the liquid.
*I don’t know how to hack open fresh coconuts, so I usually use frozen coconut juice.