Tôm Rim: Vietnamese Braised Shrimp With A Savory Caramel Sauce

While you may only be familiar with the country's famed pho or bánh mì, Vietnamese cuisine is full of delectable diverse dishes created from a unique blend of Asian and European influences. Incorporating a complex blend of spicy, sweet, salty, and sour flavors is a task almost all Vietnamese cooking does well.

One category of Vietnamese cuisine that shows off these qualities beautifully are kho or món kho dishes. These feature recipes that include various meat or seafood that is braised in a rich caramel sauce, usually made from water, fish sauce, and sugar. Traditionally, these dishes are cooked in a clay pot, known as a nồi đất.

The flavors in kho dishes are often layered, made up of not only a sweet and savory combination but also spice and acidity. Tôm rim, also referred to as tôm ram, is one of the best varieties of this group of dishes, featuring fresh shrimp in a caramel sauce bath.

What is tôm rim?

A traditional tôm rim recipe is a staple Vietnamese dish that has it all: deliciously crispy and caramelized shrimp, a complex balance of sweet and savory flavors, and a simple ingredient list that requires minimal preparation. It's prepared differently depending on the region in Vietnam it's being cooked. It seems no two tôm rims are the same, and that's what makes this meal so enticing.

The thick, golden, and sweet sauce in this dish coats the crunchy and salty shell-on shrimp that have been infused with the flavors of fish sauce, garlic, shallots, chiles, and more aromatics and seasonings. The contrast of both texture and flavor makes this a satisfying meal. Once the shrimp is braised and ready to eat, it is typically accompanied by a bowl of white rice and your choice of steamed vegetables. All in all, it takes only a few essential ingredients and an hour's time to throw this easy weeknight meal together.

Ingredients in tôm rim

When it comes to the star of the show — the shrimp — the traditional way to enjoy them in this dish may surprise you. Eating the shrimp with the shells and tail still on is typical, as this tougher portion of the crustacean develops a nice caramelized crust. The heads are also usually left on, as it is an easy way to add some nice fatty flavor to the dish. However, the shrimp can be added to the dish in any manner you like.

When it comes to deciding which species of shrimp to use, it's up to one's personal preference. Selecting different species will slightly adjust the saltiness levels in the dish. For example, choosing to cook with Atlantic Northern shrimp is going to yield much more mild results than species like blue or tiger shrimp, which have a much more brine-y taste.

Sugar and water, and optionally some coconut water, are needed to make the rich caramel sauce. Typical seasonings and aromatics also include garlic, shallots, black pepper, chilies, and salt. Fish sauce is a must, as tôm rim's main flavor comes from this sauce. For those unfamiliar, fish sauce is an umami-flavored, fermented liquid condiment made from fish and salt, which contrasts nicely with the sweetness of this dish from the sugar. 

How tôm rim is made and eaten

There is a myriad of ways to attempt making a fresh batch of tôm rim, as several ingredients can be substituted. For example, some opt to include coconut water in the caramel sauce, and others add the fish sauce at different stages of the cooking process. This lenient dish is great for beginners to Vietnamese cooking, as nothing has to be exact for this recipe to still taste good.

The first step that will easily elevate this meal is to start by marinating the shrimp in fish sauce, garlic, shallots, sugar, and black pepper. After they are finished marinating, the caramel sauce can be made. After sugar and water get heated together and caramelization occurs, this golden liquid gets poured into a pan where fragrant and simmering garlic and shallots are ready to be cooked, along with fish sauce and other aromatics. At this point, the shrimp is added in. 

All the ingredients are simmered together until the shrimp are cooked through and caramelized, and the excess liquid has reduced. When the tôm rim is ready to be served, plate it along with a bed of rice and pair it with steamed bok choy or cabbage. It can also be garnished with green onions and a bit of freshly ground black pepper.