Sunday, December 21, 2008

CSA week four - Chao tom

a.k.a. Vietnamese shrimp paste on sugarcane.

How did I not think of this yesterday? This is, I think, the only dish with sugarcane most Americans have tried. I think it's the only one I've tried. It should have just popped into my head.

What's odd about this dish is that, while most Americans wouldn't dream of making it at home, what you get in restaurants isn't really right. It's not that it's prepared poorly--it's not a particularly tricky dish--but when you're eating it, you're supposed to eat the sugar cane too. I don't think most people recognize that stick as food and even if they did they wouldn't be willing to sit in public gnawing on it like a woodchuck and spitting the fibers out onto their plates.

As usual I looked around at different recipes. There's some small variation in binders and some recipes add a little pork but beyond that it's pretty straightforward. As usual I made it a bit more complicated.

This isn't really a recipe that requires a lot of measuring. The amounts of many of the ingredients I used were determined by how much I happened to have on hand.

2 4-5" lengths of sugarcane, peeled and quartered
4 ounces raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
4 ounces pork, coarsely chopped [This is a much higher pork to shrimp ratio than the recipes call for so I supplemented the shrimp with]
1 Tablespoon dried shrimp, soaked in warm water for 30 minutes [Also, the recipes that called for pork generally specified fatty pork which the leftover pork I had wasn't so I added in]
1 Tablespoon lard
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 medium shallot, finely chopped
1 Tablespoon lemongrass, finely chopped [no recipes call for this, but I had it in the refrigerator and it didn't seem like it would hurt]
1 egg white
1/2 teaspoon fish sauce
1 large pinch salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 Tablespoon toasted rice powder [You can buy this in Indian and Asian groceries. If you do, look for the dark roasted variety. I made my own by pan-toasting two Tablespoons of risotto rice (glutinous rice would be better but I don't have any at the moment) with a tiny bit of oil for three and a half minutes in a cast iron pan over high heat. It goes from raw to burnt in the last forty-five seconds so be careful. And then, after it's cooled a little, ground it up in my spice grinder.]

0. Put the pork and shrimp in the freezer for a half hour to firm up a little. Preheat your broiler or your grill or a big pot of oil.

1. Put shrimp, pork, dried shrimp and lard in a food processor. Process until smooth.

2. Add everything else except the sugarcane. Process until smooth again. Remove the shrimp/pork paste to a bowl. You're going to be digging in there with your hands and you don't want the food processor blade lurking at the bottom. You might want to refrigerator it for a few minutes at this point to make it easier to work with.

3. Wrap each stick of sugar cane with shrimp/pork paste leaving an inch or so at either end. I had enough for seven so I saved one stick for dessert, but I think some of my paste-layers were a bit thick. A third inch is about right.

I took a while for me to figure out a good method and since my hands were full I couldn't get any pictures of it. Sorry. What I found was that if my hands were moist, but not wet, I could pat out a square of shrimp paste in the palm of one hand. All of those fibers in the sugarcane grab onto the paste so with just a little pressure it sticks more to it than to a slightly wet hand so I could put the cane at one side of the square and roll it across pulling up the paste as it went along.

The results aren't perfect so I had to patch up holes and then roll the stick between both palms like I was rolling out a rope of Play-Doh to even and smooth it out. I wonder how it's actually supposed to be done.

4. I broiled mine about five inches from the heat, five minutes on the first side and then two on the flip and they turned out looking quite lovely. I can't speak for the alternative cooking methods though.

The traditional dipping sauce is nuoc cham. I had a some left from the batch I made a while back.

The meat by itself has a nice mixture of flavors with broiled shrimp and pork accented by the tang of fish sauce and the herbal notes of the lemon grass, but it really perks up when mixed with the sugarcane juice. And it's even better with the nuoc cham so don't neglect that.

It is a bit tricky to eat if you actually try to bite off pieces of sugar cane from the side, although he bits of exposed sugar cane at the ends have been cooked into edibility. I found it easiest to bite down on the end to scrape off the meat and squeeze out the sugar juices with my teeth leaving a flattened strip of fibers that I could snip off with scissors. Very undignified but it did minimize the spitting.

Alternatively, you could skip the sugarcane and just add a couple teaspoons of sugar to the paste and make patties out of it, but where's the fun in that?


Margie said...

We first tried this dish at the urging of some good friends of ours with a LOT of travel experience (they're travel writers)at a local Vietnamese restaurant. The dish was steamed, which made the sugarcane soft throughout, and let the sweetness prevade thru the shrimp paste. They only put a strip of paste on the top, kind of like the 'ants on a log' thing (tradition? or money saving? or perhaps it falls apart in the steaming process...). Anyhow, we fell in love with it, but the restaurant quit offering it- I think they didn't get too many takers. I like the way you made it, with the broiled finish. I wonder if you could steam, then finish off in the broiler...hmmm

billjac said...

I don't see why you couldn't steam then broil if you were careful about the cooking times. One recipe I found has steaming then deep frying as an alternative cooking method but warns that "but again, you'll miss out on the sugarcane juices flavoring the shrimp". But since you found more sugar seepage in just steaming than I did in just broiling, it's worth experimenting to see what you like best.