With the weather finally leaving the cold and snow season, I decided it was time to try my hand at Chao Tom or Barbecued Shrimp Paste on Sugarcane. I've enjoyed this dish in Vietnamese restaurants but have never attempted to make it at home because I could never find the sugar cane.
This recipe is really easy. Peel, clean and de-vein a pound of shrimp. Finely mince 6 cloves of garlic and 6 shallots. Put the shrimp, garlic, shallots and 1 tablespoon of sugar in a food processor. Blend until you get a fine sticky paste.
Next cut the sugar cane into 4 inch lengths. Peel the green outer layer of the stalk. Once it has been peeled, you need to quarter the pieces so you have four 4" skewers to mold your paste onto. Rub a thin layer of vegetable oil onto your hands so the shrimp paste won't stick. Take a couple of tablespoons of the shrimp paste and place it in your palm. Place a piece of sugar cane on top of the paste in your palm and mold it around the skewer. You want to leave the ends of the sugar cane clean of the paste so you have a way to turn the skewers over while it's grilling. Continue with the remaining paste and sugar cane skewers. Now the next step seems to differ from chef to chef in the recipes I've looked at. Some say to steam your little package for 3 to 4 minutes over boiling water and some say go ahead and grill without the steaming step. I will say one advantage of steaming is that you can make these ahead of time and then grill them right before you serve them. Grill the shrimp paste over medium high coals until slightly browned.
To serve, have a traditional Vietnamese vegetable tray full of lettuce, carrots, mint, Thai basil, green onions, and cilantro. Don't forget the Nuoc Cham dipping sauce. You remove the shrimp paste from the skewer and either wrap it in lettuce with the vegetables you like or you can wrap it in a dampened sheet of rice paper.
Looks good yes? But I have to be honest and admit to a mistake that made this a not so good tasting effort. I had purchased the head on shrimp and did not clean them well enough to remove all the reddish parts found in the shrimp heads. Little did I know that the small amount would muddy the delicate clean flavor of the shrimp paste. Not even the mint or dipping sauce hide the mealy feel on my tongue. Lesson learned and was glad that it was know that only I suffered from my mistake. Still there's plenty of grilling time to get the taste right to share with others.