Why It Works
- Cooking the shrimp quickly in the reduced braising liquid keeps them tender and juicy but still flavorful.
- The caramel sauce’s mildly bitter note adds more dimension to the braise, while coconut water brings a nuanced sweetness.
In Vietnamese, hao cơm (roughly translated as “rice splurging,” is a term that describes a dish so good you keep eating rice to have more of it. (Koreans have a similar concept for this kind of dish, which they delightfully call a “rice thief.”) Comforting Vietnamese dishes that feature a flavorful gravy or deeply savory sauces, like thịt kho (braised pork) or cá kho tộ (claypot braised fish), are often classified this way. When I was still a student living in Singapore, I subsisted on big batches of my mom’s frozen tôm rim (braised shrimp) lugged back all the way from Vietnam. For a quick meal, I reheated the shrimp, boiled some greens, and served them over rice, which never stopped at just one bowl.
Tôm rim (sometimes spelled tôm ram) belongs to a larger group of dishes called kho, in which an ingredient (meat, seafood, or sturdy vegetables like daikon or bitter melon) is simmered in a sweet and savory sauce, along with heady aromatics such as shallots, garlic, ginger, or galangal. Kho’s assertive flavor comes from fish sauce—or soy sauce for vegetarian dishes—and its mahogany color comes from nước màu, a simple caramel sauce made from sugar and water. In Bến Tre, a province in the Mekong Delta where my grandparents live, locals use concentrated coconut water for the same color effect (although cooking down the coconut water to a caramel does take quite a bit of time).
As with other beloved comfort foods, there are as many ways to make tôm rim as there are cooks. My version is an amalgamation of recipes from different cookbooks and insights from several Vietnamese cooks and chefs I spoke to.
In terms of flavor, as long as you have sugar and fish sauce, you have a solid foundation. Some recipes (including my mom’s) don’t call for making a caramel sauce. However, I find its mildly bitter note adds more dimension to the dish, so spending a few extra minutes is always worth the effort (if you make pho often, it’s helpful to keep a jar of it on hand; Andrea Nguyen has an excellent recipe for it in her book, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen). As a nod to my Mekong Delta roots, I use coconut water for the braising liquid because of its nuanced sweetness, but water will also work. To build an additional layer of flavor, I follow Chef Nini Nguyen’s advice and marinate the shrimp in some sugar, salt, garlic, and shallots—the same aromatics used for the braising liquid.
Typically, tôm rim is made with shell-on, head-on shrimp, which you should try if you live in an area with access to live shrimp. If the shrimp aren’t alive, I find it safer to go with headless, as the head releases an enzyme that makes the shrimp’s body mushy and imparts an off odor when it’s not fresh. The texture you get depends on the size of the shrimp. As they cook, their shells get coated in the intense caramel sauce; according to Vy Tran of the food blog Beyond Sweet & Savory, smaller shrimp will be crunchy given their higher shell-to-meat ratio, while larger ones will retain their meaty bite. I chose to work with medium and large shrimp here, as they are more widely available.
In some recipes, the shrimp go into the pan right at the beginning of the cooking process to simmer along with the sauce (a mixture of water, fish sauce, and caramel) until it thickens. I switch the order and only add them to the braising liquid after it has reduced to an almost syrupy consistency, which Tran and Chef Tu David Phu suggest will keep them tender but still flavorful. Since the dish keeps well and is often reheated as leftovers, it’s better to start it on a good (juicy, not overcooked) footing.
Personally, I find tôm rim pretty forgiving, so don’t worry if you happen to cook the shrimp longer than they need (mine take anywhere from six to eight minutes). There’s joy in biting into a fresh-off-the-stove shrimp as its juices meld with and season the rice. But with subsequent rounds of reheating, when their meat becomes firmer, you’ll still relish every morsel coated in the concentrated sweet-salty sauce.
Before serving, Phu recommends letting the dish rest for five minutes off-heat. “Shrimp is fairly porous and will soak up the marinade,” he says.
With its richness and intensity, tôm rim is often served as a component of a meal, which includes vegetables and soup with a bright and fresh flavor for balance, along with a bowl of rice (or two or three).