These fragrant grilled savory-sweet morsels are a classic Vietnamese appetizer/party food. Perfect for noshing with friends along with a cold beer or dry white wine. For chao tom, a garlicky shrimp paste is wrapped around a stick of sugarcane, briefly steamed to set the paste and shape, and then grilled to finish. Pieces of the shrimp are typically wrapped in lettuce with herbs and dipped in some nuoc cham dipping sauce. The delicate flavors of chao tom (how to pronounce chao tom) are a wonderful mouthful. And, the sugarcane stick functions both as a great skewer that doesn’t easily burn up and after the shrimp has been removed from the sugarcane, you can chew on the sugarcane for a chase of refreshing sweet sugarcane juice. How fun is that?
Chao tom is a central Vietnamese specialty (there are many kinds of chao from that region but this one is most popular in Vietnam) and you may have encountered it on restaurant menus. I’ve wanted to make it for months but couldn’t find readily available fresh sugarcane. Since it would be months before the Hmong farmers would be offering fresh sugarcane at our Saturday farmer’s market, I had to find alternatives.
At the Lions Chinese/Vietnamese market in San Jose, I found canned sugarcane, which turned out to work just fine. The sections of sugarcane are prepped and the flavor is quite nice for a canned product. Granted the canned sugarcane isn’t as soft as fresh, you can certainly chew on the canned version.
What if you don’t have access to sugarcane at all?
I’ve found that fresh lemongrass stalks are a nice stand in too. Choose big fat ones that are coming into the market now. Look for stalks that are a good 1 inch wide at its most bulbous part; I use only the lower 5 inches because it stays intact but you can use the up parts too. Another option for the chewable skewer is the fronds of fennel bulbs – the part that we regretfully have to discard. My thinking is that both lemongrass and fennel go well with shrimp, and are flavorful and sturdy, and I like to chew on them fresh but they’re too fibrous to swallow. They’re akin to sugarcane those regards. I tried all three types of sticks and the shrimp and they worked just fine. So you choose, you can make amazing chao tom with readily available ingredients! Enjoy.
If you have extra shrimp on hand
I bought a lot of shrimp this week to develop this recipe, and ended up making a slightly more Chinese version of the paste for Cantonese stuffed crab claws, a deep-fried dim sum favorite. The recipe is on Asiandumplingtips.com, the new site.
Grilled Shrimp on Sugarcane
Traditionally, chao tom is made by pounding the ingredients with a mortar and pestle, but a food processor cuts down the work precipitously. The pork fat acts like tiny lardoons to enrich the mixture; you can cut the pork fat off a pork chop or use bacon, if you like. To make the fat easy to mince, boil it in water for 1 minute or so to firm up before cutting it. Canola oil is a fine substitute if you’re squeamish about the pork fat. When using palm sugar, remember to pound it to a fine texture with a mortar and pestle before measuring.
Makes 12 sticks, serving 4 to 6 as a snack or appetizer
1 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined (13 ounces net weight)
2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons packed palm sugar or light brown sugar
Generous 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground preferred
2 teaspoons fish sauce
1 large egg, lightly beaten
2 cloves garlic, minced and crushed into a paste
2 tablespoons minced shallot
1 tablespoon minced pork fatback or 1tablespoon canola oil
1(20-ounce) can sugarcane, or 3 fat lemongrass stalks
1 to 2 tablespoons canola oil
1 small head soft leaf lettuce, such as red leaf, green leaf, or butter leaf
8 to 12 sprigs cilantro
8 to 12 sprigs mint
8 to 12 sprigs of other fresh herbs, such as red perilla (tia to) and Vietnamese balm (kinh gioi) (see Vietnamese herb primer for details)
3/4 cup Nuoc Cham dipping sauce
1. Refresh the shrimp by putting them in a colander and tossing them with a liberal amount of salt. Rinse immediately under lots of cold water and drain well. Blot dry with paper towel.
2. Coarsely chop the shrimp, then put them in a bowl. Add a generous 1/4 teaspoon of salt, the cornstarch, sugar, pepper, fish sauce, egg, garlic, and shallot. Transfer to a food processor and process just until a coarse paste forms. Transfer to a bowl, stir in the pork fatback, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside for 15 to 30 minutes. The mixture will stiffen as it sits.
3. Meanwhile, cut 3 or 4 sections of sugarcane lengthwise into thin sticks, each between 1/4 and 1/2 inch in diameter. You need only 12 sugarcane sticks and will not use all the sugarcane in the can. Save the extras for another use; reserve some of the syrup for making the dipping sauce, if you like. (If using lemongrass, cut off 5 inch sections from the bottom, then quarter each one lengthwise. If using fennel fronds, cut off 5 inch sections about 1/3 inch in diameter; you may have to halve bigger pieces lengthwise.) Regardless of the type of stick that you’re using, blot it dry with paper towel and set aside.
4. Line a steamer tray with parchment paper and oil the parchment. Ready a pot of water for steaming.
Put the lettuce and herbs on a platter. Put the dipping sauce in a communal bowl. Set both at the table.
5. Have a bowl of water near where you’re working, along with the shrimp paste and sugarcane sticks. Wet one hand, then use the free hand to put 2 tablespoons of paste in the palm of your hand, spreading it out into circle about 2 1/2 inches wide and a good 1/4 inch thick. Center a sugarcane stick atop the paste (the ends of the stick will not be covered), then close your hand to make the paste adhere to the stick and surround it. Hold on to the sugarcane stick with your dry hand and turn the stick, all the while patting the paste with the wet hand to smooth out the surface. Set on the prepared steamer tray. Repeat to make 11 more. Put overflow sticks on a plate.
6. Steam the shrimp sticks over boiling water for 3 to 4 minutes, until opaque, slightly puffed, and just cooked through. Transfer to a plate and set aside to cool. The shrimp sticks can be covered and refrigerated for up to 3 days; return them to room temperature for grilling.
7. Preheat a grill to medium-high. Meanwhile, rub some oil over each of the shrimp portion of each stick; this prevents sticking. Grill the shrimp sticks for 6 to 8 minutes, turning frequently, until the paste is sizzling and there’s some nice browning. Transfer to a serving plate and present with the lettuce, herbs, and dipping sauce.
To eat, cut each shrimp stick vertically in 3 places. The 4 narrow pieces of shrimp paste will be easy to remove. Wrap each in a small piece of lettuce with herbs and dip in the sauce. Chew on the sugarcane stick for some sweet juice.
You can set out rice paper and a bowl for soaking the rice paper. Have people construct rice paper rolls. Small corn-tortilla size rice paper work well for the little pieces of shrimp; or, break a larger, 8-inch-wide rice paper in half. You can also just put more of the shrimp into the rice paper for a big roll. Or, you can add some round rice noodles, bun, to the garnishes and wrap it up with the shrimp and herbs.