Sunday, June 03, 2007

Chao Tom (Vietnamese Grilled Shrimp Paste-Wrapped Sugarcane)

It's a good thing you can't actually taste what you see. Does it look good? Because I was a little, OK a lot, heavy-handed with the salt. My second-youngest uncle said I put the whole ocean in the shrimp. Ack! But the basic premise of the recipe should do you fine and I've dramatically decreased the salt quotient.

Chao Tom (Vietnamese Sugarcane Shrimp) 1

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. :) (Hmm. I feel like I should have done a video or taken pictures for this part but my hands were pretty sticky! Let me know if this is too confusing.)

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.

Sugarcane 1

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.


  1. We always knew this as Sugarcane Prawns back in Sg, knew it was Viet but did not know the Viet name for it. Like this dish a lot. :)

  2. Sugarcane Prawns back in SG? Where did you eat that tigerfish?

  3. MMMMMMMMMMMM!! Well, the dish in general, not your ultra-salty version, hehe.

    I love the texture of banh hoi, but we don't eat it that often. Dang, your mom makes her own? What a pro!

  4. hahah thats funny. my dad doesnt really complain about food. he'll eat and try anything.


  5. oh yea, isnt your banh hoi missing some oil? looks dry and wheres the shrimp?


  6. Mm I would still eat it, it looks so good. At first glance the noodle sheets looked like gauze. :P Anyhoo, when I was little I would chew and suck on bits of sugarcane.

  7. Your microwave-tastetest technique is very smart. Before i make chinese dumplings, i always make a dummy dumpling or pan fry it to see if it needs more work. these are one of my favorite things to eat at dim sum.

  8. Lol. I remember getting a juicy piece of sugarcane every time I helped my grandmother carry packages at the farmers markets in Taiwan. Love that stuff.

  9. I forgot where...but I think some Tung Lok branches have this? And also some Thai rests? None of the eateries are Viet. though. Wandering Chopsticks, "renting" your comment box as a msg board. Hee hee...

  10. Haven't had chao tom in a million years! And getting every last bit of sweetness out of the sugar canes was the best part :-)

  11. Tigerfish,
    Sugarcane prawns is sure easier to say than the whole spiel I put in the title. :)

    What? No words for me? :(

    Yeah, I miss my mom's banh hoi. When it's freshly steamed it's so much better. Store-bought banh hoi is rather dry in comparison.

    Hehe. Your dad was funny.

    I don't like slathering oil all over my banh hoi. Just enough for the scallions to get soft. And the shrimp is the chao tom silly! You only put the dried shrimp on if there's nothing else to eat with it.

    I thought about photographing it with the banh hoi held up to the sun but got lazy. :P

    The dim sum versions, the sugarcane is soooo tiny!

    My mouth is a bit raw from all the fibers cutting into me. :(

    It's all good. As long as I help someone else find some good eats. :)

    Me too! That's why I had such an urge to make them.

  12. Dearest Chopsticks,
    We love you and your Chao Tom. :D

    Thank you for allowing us to use your comment box as a msg board :D

  13. Hi WC! It's me again! This week is making WC food week! I made this recipe today ... except, I didn't use the sugar cane ... LOL!!! I used beancurd skin instead!

    And as expected, it came out wonderfully!!!

    Your recipes, rocks!!!


  14. Hi Tricia,
    Yay! I'm so excited you're trying my recipes. :)

    Did you steam and then fry the beancurd skin like tom tau huu ky? I gotta try that next!

  15. I am just trying out this recipe this weekend for the first time...but I cannot find sugarcane, so what can be used instead, if anything?

  16. Blondee47,
    Have you bought the shrimp yet? I've got a recipe for the shrimp paste in bean curd skin that I haven't posted yet if you want try making that instead. Otherwise, you can put them on skewers or make little patties like my nem nuong recipe.

  17. Thank you so much...this is bookmarked and I will make a home version.

  18. I've never used or eaten sugar cane, but I bought a large can of sugar cane stalks the other day at an oriental market here in Göteborg, Sweden. Now what to do with it? Thanks for your recipe. Is there a good source of other recipes, so I can choose one that might be easiest for a total novice? In your recipe (or others), after the cane has been cooked, can one eat the whole thing, or does one still spit out the fibers?

  19. Rick,
    You can eat sugarcane raw. But if you mean after making this recipe and the sugarcane is cooked on the grill, you can chew it, but you'll still have to spit out the fibers. They're too woody to eat.

  20. Thank you so much for posting this recipe. I was looking for a recipe for all the sugar cane that grows at my brother's shop in Laguna Beach, CA. I can't wait to share this with him. We will probably serve it with persian saffron rice :)

  21. Chef Moji,
    Oh, what a great combination. Shrimp and saffron sound wonderful. Makes me think about trying to create a recipe.


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