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Elements / One ingredient, one dish

Experiencing an alchemist's joy -- wrenching precious delights from common ingredients by fire and skill -- doesn't take a wand and a cauldron.

A metal spoon and a small, heavy saucepan will do. Your reward is caramel sauce, an essential Vietnamese condiment with transformative powers. It adds a tantalizing, smoky richness to dishes, with less sweetness than you'd expect.

In her essential Vietnamese cookbook, "Into the Vietnamese Kitchen," Andrea Nguyen preaches its uses. Try a spoonful of the sauce to finish stir fry dishes, or with a dose of fresh ginger, to replace a bottled stir-fry sauce. Brush it on grilled meat. It's also used in braising, whether catfish in a clay pot with ginger, chicken thighs, tofu, pork ribs, hard-boiled eggs, or as in our recipe below, beef.

What's in a name?: South Vietnamese call caramel sauce nuoc mau ("nook mao"), or "colored water." In the north, Nguyen writes, it's called nuoc hang ("nook hahng"), literally "merchandising water." That's because it's the sticky, savory coating roadside food hawkers apply to grilled skewers and other on-the-go snacks.

Nguyen has demystified the process of almost-but-not-quite burning sugar. Her 25-minute process is nearly foolproof, but be cautious with melted sugar, which can cause savage burns.

Dissolve one cup sugar in a quarter-cup of water in a small, heavy saucepan over medium-low heat. Stop stirring.

Put a large bowl, much bigger than the pot bottom, into your sink and fill it with cold water.

As the sugar heats, it will turn clear. Bubbles will surface regularly, and some sugar may solidify, creating a scaly surface effect. In about 15 minutes, color will appear, starting at faint tan and heading through maple syrup to weak coffee.

When smoke starts rising, don an oven mitt, remove the pot and swirl the contents slowly, as it darkens by the second. Watch for dark orange bubbles over black coffee.

Place the pot bottom in the bowl, cooling it. Then add the half-cup of water; it will bubble vigorously. Place the pot back on the heat until the caramel finishes dissolving.

Pour into glass jar to cool. Covered, it will keep indefinitely in a cupboard.

>Beef in caramel sauce

2 pounds beef chuck, in 1.5-inch chunks

3 tablespoons fish sauce

3 tablespoons caramel sauce

3-inch piece ginger root, peeled and sliced

1 teaspoon five-spice powder (optional)

2 pieces star anise (optional)

1 teaspoon vegetable oil


Toss beef in five-spice powder, if using. Brown beef in oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add fish sauce, caramel sauce, ginger, anise (if using) and water to cover. Bring to boil, then lower to simmer and cover. Simmer until beef is tender, about 90 minutes. Remove ginger and anise, and serve over white rice.

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