Chao Tom (Vietnamese Grilled Shrimp Paste-Wrapped Sugarcane)
For about 20 pieces, you'll need:
2 lbs shrimp, peeled, deveined
4 cloves garlic
1/2 tsp salt 1 tblsp sugar, and adjust if necessary
a few dashes of fish sauce
sugarcane, peeled, split into quarter lengths
Peel and devein the shrimp. Place shrimp in a colander and sprinkle 1/2 tsp salt, mix thoroughly and allow to drain.
In a food processor, grind shrimp with garlic until a smooth paste is formed. You may need to add a little bit of cold water for the shrimp paste to smooth out and become "fluffy."
After the paste is formed, add 1 tblsp sugar and a few dashes of fish sauce. Take a small chunk of the paste and pop it in the microwave for a few seconds to cook. Taste and adjust if necessary. Put the mixture, uncovered, in the fridge to slightly thicken while you prepare the sugarcane.
You can sometimes find raw or canned sugarcane at Asian grocery stores. I've seen it sold at the farmers' market in Alhambra.
Or you can just substitute with bamboo skewers. Though you'll be missing out on the sugarcane juices sweetening the shrimp paste while it cooks on the grill. And bamboo skewers aren't nearly as appetizing to munch on afterward as sugarcane...
Sugarcane should be peeled and quartered length-wise. If you've never dealt with raw sugarcane before, it gets a little sticky. You'll want to spread newspapers on the floor and place your cutting board in the center. With a cleaver, cut as close to the joints as possible. I usually do this two sections at a time. Then hold the sugarcane upright and split off the outside peel. It should easily split down the side. Removing the hard outer peel then makes it easier to remove the rest of the joints so you have a nice clean section of sugarcane. Then split it into quarters length-wise. You'll need about 20 quarter pieces for this recipe, so that's at least 5 sections of sugarcane. And if you have extra, just munch on raw sugarcane. :)
I've now posted photo instructions on how to cut and prepare sugarcane.
Once you've got all your sugarcane pieces cut and washed, take the shrimp paste out from the fridge. The chill has thickened the paste a bit so it makes it easier to work with. Pour a little bit of oil onto your hands to keep the shrimp paste from sticking, then take a small handful and wrap the shrimp paste around the sugarcane. Grill.
Alternatively, you can steam and then deep-fry the chao tom, but again, you'll miss out on the sugarcane juices flavoring the shrimp.
To serve, you can buy banh hoi (Vietnamese steamed rice vermicelli noodle sheets) at most Asian grocery stores for about $2 a package. (My mom makes her own but I haven't attempted this recipe yet.) Make a scallion oil by slicing green onions and sauteing them in a tablespoon or so of oil. Then brush the scallions over the banh hoi. Pour the sweeter version of nuoc cham (Vietnamese fish sauce) on top. Alternatively, you can treat chao tom like nem nuong (Vietnamese grilled pork patties) and serve it with rice paper and herbs. Or if you don't have access to any sugarcane, you can make tom tau hu ky (Vietnamese shrimp paste wrapped in bean curd skin).
Who made my recipe for chao tom? WC reader Blondee47 substituted the shrimp with fish and said, "Everyone loved it!! Son thought it was chicken - could not believe it was fish. Thanks so much this is going on the 'keeper' list."
On a side note, my ba noi (paternal grandmother) planted this sugarcane "field" about 20 years ago. It's just on a one-foot wide border along the back wall of my second youngest-uncle's house but it's still thriving these many years later.
So when I was trying to decide how to chop one down, I noticed a 3-foot section that had already been cut sitting out there. I grabbed it and went inside to ask my uncle if he was saving it for anything. When I told him what I was attempting to make, he said that length of sugarcane wasn't going to be enough. Or was I only intending to make it for myself? Hehe, well, after eating my very, very salty results, I'm sure he wished he hadn't asked now. ;)
When I was little and visiting SoCal for the summers, whenever my uncle was chopping sugarcane, all of the cousins would flock around him, waiting with anticipation to munch on the naturally sweet fibers. Ah, good times, good times.