OK, so go into your backyard and cut down some sugarcane. What? You don't grow sugarcane in your backyard you say? You mean everyone doesn't do that?! If you don't grow your own sugarcane, I've seen them sold at the Farmers' Market - Alhambra, and in some Asian and Latino grocery stores.
My ba noi (paternal grandmother) planted this patch of sugarcane on a 1-foot wide strip behind my second-youngest uncle's house about 20 years ago.
I chopped down one stalk. The longer half is a little over 5 feet, so the whole stalk was around 8 feet tall.
Now, suppose you do want to grow your own sugarcane. When buying sugarcane, look for a section with a bud of growth at the joints. You can chop off both ends since the joints are too tough to eat, leaving a section that looks like what you see below. Bury that in the ground, and provided you have the right weather conditions, it should turn into a stalk of sugarcane. Sugarcane spreads so you'll eventually get more than one stalk.
You'll want to spread out a lot of newspapers and do this on the floor. It's gonna get messy and sticky. See the cross-section of the joint? Very tough to eat so you'll want to discard that.
I used a cheap butcher knife/cleaver that I bought from the Asian grocery store. Kiwi brand for less than $5 I believe. Chop the sugarcane on both sides of the joints, as close to the joint as possible so you don't waste any of the edible fibers. I placed my knife over the spot I'd like to chop, then use a hammer to pound it down. No picture of the hammer since I only had two hands and one was holding the knife and the other was holding the camera. :P
You'll then get a nice section like the one on the bottom with no joints.
Sugarcane has a very hard outer shell? rind? so you'll want to remove that.
Random family anecdote. My ong ngoai (Vietnamese maternal grandfather) had black lacquered teeth, a Vietnamese custom that stretches back to the 2 millennium BC. Nhuom rang den (Vietnamese black lacquered teeth) is not to be confused with teeth stained dark red-brown from chewing betelnut. Lacquered teeth were once regarded as a sign of beauty but fell out of practice sometime in the 20th century. It was a painstaking process. After the lacquer was applied, it took several days to set so you couldn't eat until it hardened. Or if you did eat, it was most likely Chao (Vietnamese Rice Porridge) that was poured straight down the throat, to avoid touching the teeth. The lacquer also had a practical purpose, it served to prevent tooth decay. Up until his 80s, my ong ngoai never had a cavity and stripped sugarcane with his bare teeth. Yes, that hard outer rind of sugarcane that you see in the picture below. With his bare teeth. Well into his 80s. My ong ngoai was the man! I, unfortunately, am not. So I used a knife.
Hold the section of sugarcane upright with the knife near the edge. Just pound down until the outside is removed.
Keep going until all of the outer rind is gone. You can then lightly wash the inside section of sugarcane if you wish. I don't. That's sort of like washing fruit after peeling it. Removes the flavor.
Hold the sugarcane upright again and chop it down the center.
And then chop again into quarter-length sections. If you don't have access to a supply of free sugarcane, you might want to be more judicious and chop it again for the recipe.
Now, suppose you don't get a nice long section of sugarcane. You can still make chao tom with smaller sections.
It may take several joints to have a section big enough to wrap the shrimp paste around. Chop off outside joints like before, but save the middle joint.
Then strip it like before, but this time with the middle joint intact.
Cut into sections like before. Be careful since the joints might prevent the sugarcane from being chopped cleanly through.
And that's it. You've now got nice long sections of sugarcane to wrap shrimp paste around and grill. Just remember not to eat the joints If you don't feel like cooking, you can munch on the sugarcane as a sweet snack. Take the cleaned quarter-length sections and chop into bite-sized pieces.
Just chew and chew until every bit of sweetness from the sugarcane is extracted. Then spit out the fibers. I know it's not appetizing, but that chewed up section on the upper right of the photo shows you what that looks like.
Cleaned, chopped sugarcane ready for snacking.
You can also chill the sugarcane in the fridge for a cold sweet snack. Or boil it for a naturally sweet drink like my ba noi used to do.
Now that you've got some nice clean sections, you can make my recipe for Chao Tom (Vietnamese Grilled Shrimp Paste Wrapped Around Sugarcane).
Or you can buy freshly pressed sugarcane juice from some Vietnamese bakeries and restaurants. Some of the places I've blogged about that sell nuoc mia (sugarcane juice).
Banh Mi & Che Cali Restaurant - Alhambra
C&C Express (C&C Food Co.) - Westminster (Little Saigon)
China Town Deli - Los Angeles (Chinatown)
1 year ago today, a little experimentation resulted in Egg Rolls with Salmon and Avocado.