Caramel chicken is a quintessential Vietnamese home cooked meal. This salty-sweet chicken, braised in a savory, sticky sauce, hits all the right spots when you want a simple, comforting meal. It's also very quick to make, with a simple ingredient list - a perfect weeknight meal with many options to adapt it to other meats!
What is Caramel Chicken?
In Vietnamese cuisine this dish is called ga kho. Ga means chicken, and kho refers to dishes involving braising or stewing, and you can make kho using any other meat. A kho using caramel sauce like this one is very common, and the chicken version is particularly easy and fast.
Thit kho is a classic version that involves pork belly and hard boiled eggs, similar to the Thai kai palo minus the spices. But it takes much longer to cook, so the chicken version is a good beginner kho. You can also find kho made with fish!
Traditionally this dish is made and served in a clay pot; but a wok, a 10-inch heavy-bottomed skillet, or dutch oven will work.
Caramel in a Savory Dish
Using caramel sauce in a savory cooking is a classic Vietnamese technique. So common, in fact, that you can buy pre-made caramel sauce from Vietnamese grocery stores!
The bittersweet caramel is responsible for the rich colour and also the complex savory-sweet flavors that can't be obtained using plain sugar. It's a simple process but do watch the video if this is your first time so you know what to expect.
If you've made caramel for desserts such as flan or my caramel custard cake, it's the same idea, but you want this to be much darker. The darker the caramel the less sweet and the deeper the flavour, which work better in a savoury dish. But you do not want it burnt, so again watch the video so you can see the colour you're going for!
Here are the ingredients you'll need for Vietnamese caramel chicken, and it uses mostly basic stuff!
- Boneless skinless chicken thighs - bone-in whole thighs will also work, but some modification is needed as discussed in the FAQ below.
- Good fish sauce - I specify "good" because it's the main seasoning for this dish and quality will make a difference. Read this article to learn about how to choose good fish sauce. If you're allergic to fish though, you can substitute soy sauce.
- Palm sugar or granulated sugar
- Rice vinegar as a small amount of acid is added to brighten and balance the sweetness. However the flavour of the vinegar won't actually come through, so other kinds of vinegar or even lime juice will work.
- Coconut water; or sub unsalted chicken stock. More on this below.
- Ground black pepper
- Thai chilies, optional
- Green onion and/or cilantro for garnish. Choose either one or both if you have them, but cilantro will add a bit more cooling freshness.
- Jasmine rice for serving
How to Make Vietnamese Caramel Chicken
Here's a bird's eye view of the steps, but if this is your first time watch the video tutorial to ensure success!
- Cut the chicken into 1.5-inch cubes, mix with 1 Tbsp fish sauce and let it sit while you prep.
- In a small saucepan, add the chopped palm sugar and let it melt over medium heat allowing it to caramelize.
- If you see some uneven colour, stir to even it out. Let the sugar caramelize until it is a very dark brown.
- Turn off the heat and immediately add the coconut water to stop the cooking process. Put it back on the heat and let it cook for a minute more until the sugar is mostly dissolved.
- Turn off the heat and add the remaining fish sauce and rice vinegar. The sauce can be made in advance and it will keep indefinitely in the fridge.
- Heat a wok, a 10-inch skillet or a dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add a little oil, and saute the garlic, shallots, ginger and black pepper until the shallots are translucent.
- Push the herbs to one side and add the chicken; spreading it out into a single layer. Then flick the herbs on top of the chicken and let the chicken sear, undisturbed, for about 2 minutes.
- You're looking for the bottom of the chicken to be golden brown.
- Give everything a toss and pour the caramel sauce over.
- Let it simmer on medium-low or low heat for 15 minutes (look for constant but gentle bubbling) stirring occasionally until the chicken is fork tender. If it becomes too dry, top up with a splash of water as needed.
- Off heat, taste and adjust the sauce (this is very important!). If it is too strong or there's not enough sauce, add a little water. If it's too sweet, add more fish sauce and maybe even a touch of vinegar to balance. Or add more sugar! Do whatever you need to do here.
- Stir in some green onions and chopped chilies (if using). Plate, top it with a little fresh ginger if you like, and serve with steamed white rice and a side of veggies!
Pro Tip: Make sure you have good ventilation while cooking to avoid having the smell of fish sauce in your curtains for days!
Coconut Water in a Braise?
Let’s talk about the choice of braising liquid. I was surprised by the use of coconut water because in Thailand, we have coconut water out the wazoo, but we don’t use it in this way. That said it adds a natural sweetness and a little more complexity, and it works.
You can use chicken stock instead, but I’d up the sugar by about a teaspoon to make up for the sweetness.
What REALLY surprised me though was finding out that many Vietnamese-Americans use Coco Rico coconut flavoured soda instead! It’s a Puerto Rican drink, but back when coconut water was not widely available in America Vietnamese-Americans started using this as an alternative, and it became a thing. It's safe to say that Coco Rico is now a part of Vietnamese cooking in N. America!
If you're interested in trying it, a word of caution. It’s very sweet, too sweet for me even as a drink. If using, you would have to use less sugar, which means less caramel flavour...in short, I don't recommend it myself.
Note: You cannot just substitute it for coconut water in my recipe or you will end up with an overly sweet dish. I would look for other recipes that are designed specifically to work with Coco Rico.
Why some caramel chicken has no caramel
This dish was popularized in America by a famous Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco called The Slanted Door. I used to work close to it, and just about every table ordered their caramel chicken; including me when I went!
Their recipe has been shared in many publications, but when I saw it, I was surprised to find that there is actually no caramel in their caramel chicken!
What they, and sometimes other people, use is dark brown sugar. I found out that brown sugar is a common shortcut to get that dark colour without the caramelizing step. In a restaurant, this is understandable as it helps with consistency and efficiency. And the dish still tastes good!
For cooking at home though, I think caramelizing sugar yields a better flavour, and at the very least, the traditional flavour of this dish. So I encourage you to make the caramel, especially since it only takes a few minutes for the small amount needed for this recipe.
Caramel chicken keeps very well in the fridge, and it will taste even better the next day. It will keep in the fridge for at least a week.
Tips for Advance Prep
The caramel sauce can be made in bulk, in advance, and it will keep in the fridge indefinitely. If the sauce is ready to go, this recipe will be super quick to pull off on a weeknight.
The whole dish can be made in advance and reheated when ready to serve (a perfect dinner party dish!) Leave the green onions and chilies out and then add them just before serving and after you reheat. You can reheat on a stovetop or in the microwave; and be prepared to add a splash of water to make up for the evaporation during reheating.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes, with a few adjustments. When you add the chicken to the pan to sear, add it skin side down. Once browned, flip the chicken and add the sauce. You may need to add more water to ensure that the liquid almost submerges the chicken.
Your cooking time will need to be increased to about 40 minutes, so I would keep it loosely covered to prevent it from drying out too much. Flip the chicken a few times in between.
Once the chicken is done, taste and adjust the seasoning, and if it's too diluted, remove the chicken and reduce the sauce further.
The process is the same, but you will need to change the cooking time according to the meat you use, then adjust the amount of liquid to match the cooking time.
If using pork shoulder and/or pork belly for example, you'll need to cook it for about 2 hours. Read the previous question to get an idea of things you might need to change if using meats that take longer to cook.
I do not recommend chicken breast for any kind of braise since it will dry out. Chicken breast should only be cooked minimally, so if you really want to use it, here's what I'd do:
Make the recipe but do not add the chicken until after the sauce has reduced (so you will just reduce the sauce by itself with the herbs). Once the sauce is thick and sticky-looking, add the chicken and cook just until it's done. Adjust the consistency and flavour of the sauce as needed. The same would apply to fish, which also takes very little time to cook.
You can certainly make this with tofu or any other vegan meats. Substitute fish sauce with vegan fish sauce or soy sauce. If your protein only takes a short time to cook, follow the instructions for chicken breast in the above question.
Unsalted or low sodium chicken stock will be fine, but increase the sugar by about 1 teaspoon.
Though I have never done it, theoretically the premade caramel sauce will replace the palm sugar in the recipe. So you can skip the sauce making step altogether and add the nuoc mau and the other sauce ingredients to the chicken after it has seared.
The amount is something you'll have to tinker with. Start with a tablespoon and add more until the desired colour is achieved; and be prepared to add more sugar at the end if needed.
Vietnamese Caramel Chicken - Ga Kho
- 1½ lb boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1.5" cubes
- 2 Tbsp fish sauce
- 3 Tbsp palm sugar, finely chopped, or granulated sugar (see note 1)
- ½ Tbsp rice vinegar, (see note 2)
- ½ cup coconut water, or unsalted chicken stock
- 2 Tbsp neutral oil
- 4 cloves garlic, chopped
- ½ cup julienned shallots, about 1 large head
- 1 ½ Tbsp finely julienned ginger
- ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
- Thai chilies, chopped, to taste (optional)
- 1 green onion and/or 4 sprigs cilantro, chopped
- Jasmine rice and a side of veggies, for serving
- If you have palm sugar, that's great. But if you don't, white sugar will work fine as you'll still be getting a lot of flavour from the caramel.
- The vinegar is there just to provide some acidity to balance the sweetness, but the flavour of the vinegar will not come through; so you can use any other types of vinegar you have, or even lime juice, lemon juice or tamarind.
FULL VIDEO TUTORIAL
All my recipes come with step-by-step video tutorials with extra tips not mentioned in the blog post, so make sure you watch the video to ensure success. If you enjoy them, consider subscribing to the YouTube Channel to not miss an episode. Thank you!Subscribe to my YouTube Channel
- Mix chicken with 1 Tbsp fish sauce and let it sit while you do the other things.1½ lb boneless skinless chicken thighs, 2 Tbsp fish sauce
- To make the fish sauce caramel: In a small pot add the palm sugar and let it melt over medium heat. Allow it to caramelize until the sugar is a very dark brown, almost black. As the sugar darkens, stir it occasionally to even out the darkness. Once it's very dark brown, remove from heat and deglaze with the coconut water - it will sizzle aggressively. Put the pot back on the heat and keep it cooking for another minute until the sugar is all dissolved (a couple of undissolved bits stuck to the pot is okay). Turn off the heat and add the remaining 1 Tbsp of fish sauce and vinegar, set aside. Tip: You can make this sauce in bulk, in advance, as part of your meal prep, and it'll keep in the fridge forever.3 Tbsp palm sugar, ½ Tbsp rice vinegar, ½ cup coconut water
- In a wok, on medium high heat, add the oil and sauté the ginger, shallots, garlic and black pepper until the shallots are translucent.2 Tbsp neutral oil, 4 cloves garlic, ½ cup julienned shallots, 1 ½ Tbsp finely julienned ginger, ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
- Push the herbs aside, add the chicken, and spread it out in one layer, then scoop the herbs back on top of the chicken to protect them from the heat. (You can also remove the herbs from the pan for now to make this less clunky, but this method works fine). Let the chicken fry without moving it until some browning has developed on the underside of the chicken.
- Once the chicken has browned, add the caramel sauce and stir to mix. Simmer gently, uncovered, for about 15 mins, stirring every few minutes in between. You're looking for the chicken to be fork tender, and for the sauce to be thickened to a nice consistency.
- Once done, taste the sauce (this is very important!). It should be sweet and salty, but if it feels too strong/concentrated, add a small splash of water or coconut water to thin it out. If it tastes too weak/diluted, let it cook for a few minutes longer to reduce (to make this go faster you can remove the chicken with a slotted spoon and then just boil the heck out of the sauce to quickly reduce it).
- To finish, stir in chopped chilies if desired, then plate and top with green onions and/or cilantro. Serve with rice and a side of veggies (see below for some suggestions).Thai chilies, 1 green onion and/or 4 sprigs cilantro, Jasmine rice and a side of veggies
What to Serve with Caramel Chicken
This dish is great on its own, but it can benefit from a side of vegetables to lighten it up a bit. These two simple veggie stir fries are quick and tasty. If you want something tart and spicy to balance the sweetness though, go for the brussel sprouts or the papaya salad!