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Those funky tropical drinks served in faux coconut shells got their start with the original tropical drink: coconut water.

People living around coconut palm trees long ago learned that if you shake a young coconut, it sloshes. Lop a hole in it, and you have a faintly sweet drink just a little thicker than water.

Recently, coconut water has become available in United States supermarkets after being touted for virtues as a sort of natural Gatorade: no-fat, low-calorie, packed with potassium and electrolytes.

In cooking, coconut water is sometimes used for cooking rice, or braising meats. It is used in some Indonesian pig-roasting practices to mop a suckling pig's skin as it is slowly rendered crisp over a fire.

Not milk? Don't confuse coconut water, the sometime beverage, with coconut milk, the Asian cooking staple. Coconut milk is thicker, contains coconut fat and might be the exact opposite of thirst quenching.

Here, coconut water is used to heighten the exotic flavors of caramel pork, a Vietnamese home-cooking staple traditionally made in a clay pot. This recipe, based on one from Charles Pham in the New York Times, has become a family favorite. (Use water instead of coconut water and it'll work out fine.)

> Caramel Pork

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1/4 cup sugar

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1/4 cup sliced shallots or onion

1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated or matchsticked

1 fresh hot pepper, like jalapeno or serrano, minced (optional)

2 pounds pork butt or country ribs, cut into 1 to 1 1/2 inch chunks

1/8 cup fish sauce, or to taste

3/4 cup coconut water, or water

1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

4 hard-boiled eggs, shelled (optional)

Scallions, thinly sliced, for garnish (optional)

Put oil in heavy-bottomed pot large enough to fit pork chunks in single layer. Turn heat to medium high and add sugar.

Watch for sugar to start browning. When it is a light coffee color, add garlic, ginger, shallots or onion, and hot pepper, if using.

Stir and let cook until garlic and shallots or onions soften, about 5 minutes.

Add pork and stir to combine. Let pork cook for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring so it doesn't stick.

Add coconut water or water, fish sauce and black pepper. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to a steady simmer. Push eggs into mixture and put lid on pot.

Simmer, occasionally stirring carefully, until pork is tender, 30 to 45 minutes more. If mixture looks like it might dry out, add a little water.

Slice eggs. Serve pork and savory, salty sauce over abundant white rice. Shower with scallions, if using.

e-mail: agalarneau@buffnews.com