A Vietnamese shrimp dish adapts to U.S. kitchens

New York TimesMarch 19, 2013 


A dish of Vietnamese-style crispy shrimp cakes, in New York, Feb. 23, 2013. Sugar cane is the main ingredient to authentically recreating the dish, but you don't need it, unless you really want it.


The hardest part about making Vietnamese shrimp on sugar cane, called chao tom, is finding the sugar cane.

The shrimp part is easy: Whirl together raw shrimp and seasonings in the food processor until you get a paste (or mousse, as some recipes euphemistically call the thick mix), then pat it on pieces of sugar cane and steam it before grilling or frying.

I’ve eaten the dish many times in Vietnamese restaurants, where it’s served as an appetizer with lettuce leaves for wrapping and a piquant nuoc cham, a mixture of fish sauce and lime juice, for dipping. After the shrimp is gone, you can gnaw on the sugar cane, sucking the sweet, watery juice as a palate cleanser.

The only thing that stopped me from authentically re-creating the dish is the lack of easy access to sugar cane. I’ve contented myself with a makeshift version, patting the shrimp paste into cakes and pan-frying them until the edges are crisp and golden.

Although traditional recipes keep the shrimp seasonings to a minimum (making up for it later with the nuoc cham), I like to spice up the paste. If my vegetable market has lemon grass, I’ll add it to the shrimp along with green chilies and scallions. Minced fresh herbs (basil, cilantro, parsley) and freshly grated ginger also work well. Or you can keep everything simple and go with garlic, salt and sugar as flavorings. It’s very adaptable.

You can serve the cakes as an appetizer wrapped in lettuce leaves or herbs (large basil leaves are wonderful in summer). I usually fry them up for dinner, heaping them on rice noodles and dousing it all with nuoc cham. And lately I’ve been contemplating Vietnamese shrimp sliders, sandwiching the cakes with nuoc cham-flavored mayonnaise on tiny brioches.

Perhaps one day I’ll even wrap the paste around sugar cane sticks.

For a printable copy of the recipe, click the link:

Vietnamese-Style Crispy Shrimp Cakes

Vietnamese-Style Crispy Shrimp Cakes 1 pound shelled large shrimp, coarsely chopped 1/4 cup cornstarch, more for dusting 2 tablespoons minced lemon grass (tender inner stalk only) 2 garlic cloves, minced 2 serrano or jalapeno chili peppers, seeded and minced 4 scallions, thinly sliced, white and light green part separated from dark green tops 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons sugar 1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt 1/4 cup Asian fish sauce Finely grated zest of 1 lime 1/4 cup fresh lime juice (from 2 to 3 limes) Peanut oil, for frying Cooked rice noodles, optional, for serving 1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves, optional, for serving

IN the bowl of a food processor, combine shrimp, cornstarch, lemon grass, garlic, chilies, white and light green scallion bottoms, 2 teaspoons sugar and the salt. Pulse until mixture forms a coarse paste.

IN a small bowl, whisk together fish sauce, lime zest and juice, 1 tablespoon sugar and the dark green scallion tops.

HEAT oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Wet hands to keep shrimp paste from sticking. Form 2 tablespoons of shrimp mixture into a 1/2-inch-thick patty. Dust patty with cornstarch. Repeat with remaining batter. Fry patties in batches until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Serve over rice noodles, if desired, drizzled with fish sauce mixture and strewn with cilantro. Yield:

14 cakes

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