Not to be biased but I think cha lua (silk sausage, also known as lean pork sausage) is the best and most versatile sausage out there. Ok, of course I’m biased, but who isn’t when it comes to their motherland’s cuisine. So can we make cha lua? There are scores of recipes, from Ravenous Couple‘s touch of familiarity to the indifferent instruction on VietnameseRecipes.com… There are also scores of recipes labeled as “cha lua” but are actually giò thủ (head cheese), industriously copied from one another, I’m not sure who started first, but yum-recipes.com, recipehound.com, keyingredient.com just to list a few, all share the same formula with 8 oz of meat from a small pig head.
For those with not much more than a skillet and a spatula in a kitchenette (hello, grad students!), it’s best just to buy a loaf from your nearest Vietnamese sandwich shop or Asian market.
Now what? Here’s a list of 13 dishes with cha lua to churn out at your castle (in no particular order), requiring no special cooking hoopla or obscure ingredients (unless silk sausage is considered an obscure ingredient).
1. CƠM ÂM PHỦ (Hades Rice):
Among the Huế creations, this one has kind of a freakish name. But the only thing, if any, that can freak you out would be how much shredding and slicing you need to do. The ingredients are flexible: some kind of meat (chicken, pork, beef, squid, elephant, etc.), cha lua, cucumber, omelet, some good nuoc mam with sugar, salt and chili pepper. The orange powder atop the rice is shrimp powder (tôm chấy), but it’s just makeup, not essential. For a detailed recipe, visit Kiki Rice.
There are two stories behind this intriguing name. In the more fairy tale-like version, a king one day decided to go around town by himself to see how his people lived. In the late evening, he got hungry and knocked on some door, asking for a meal. Living in the small straw house was a poor old lady, who did not recognize the king dressed in common clothes, nonetheless she kindly took everything she had in the kitchen to prepare a rice dish. Despite its simplicity and lack of spectacular ingredients, the hungry king thought it was quite good, and he was so touched by her hospitality that he invited her to be his chef in the royal palace. Because the house was built on lowland, it was dark outside, there was no electricity and the poor lady wasn’t lighting candles everywhere, the king’s dinner had some underworld feel to it, so he called the dish Hades Rice. Moral of the story? The best way to a king’s kitchen is via his stomach.
In the more modern, unromantic version, there once was a small dining hut, where only one dish was served: rice with thinly sliced meat and vegetable. It was opened at night, mostly for poor workers, rickshaw pullers, and people on their way home from a late theatrical show. Again, because of the low light, the quiet and somewhat rusty, rugged ambience, the dining hut was known as Âm Phủ (Hades), and its only dish the Hades Rice.
So which story do you prefer?
2. CHA LUA KIMBAP
Cha lua makes a great substitution for crab stick in kimbap. It has the sleek, chewy texture, and it has flavors. I wrote a post on this feeble attempt a while back, if you’re interested in recipes.
3. XÔI MẶN or XÔI GẤC:
Xôi mặn (savory sticky rice) with Chinese sausage, chicken, pork floss (rousong) and of course, cha lua (recipe from Ravenous Couple). Xôi gấc is sticky rice colored with the gac fruit, fairly simple to make if you can find the fruit. I haven’t seen any in either Houston or San Jose, but maybe you can steal some from Ravenous Couple’s aunts’ garden, or just raid their kitchen.
Simply put, cha lua goes well with sticky rice, whether the sticky rice is sweet or savory, red or white, steamed and clumpy or boiled in shape (bánh chưng bánh tét).
4. Breakfast English muffin sandwich, with a slice of cha lua and a fried egg.
No need to toast it or butter it, the juicy silk sausage can savorize the sandwich all by itself. You can see how I try to minimize cooking.
5. BANH MI CHA LUA
There’s no need to describe the tasty harmonious symphony in a banh mi. It’s cheap ($2-3 from the sandwich shops), but it’d be fun to whack this out at home. Buy a few crisp baguettes, follow Wandering Chopsticks’ instruction for pickled carrot and daikon, and your imagination for the rest.
6. CHẢ KHO (braised silk sausage)
Two words: salty and sweet. The key is nuoc mam (fish sauce). Here’s my adaptation from Hang’s Fooood Experiment‘s recipe of tomato braised sausage: Start with 3 tablespoons of sugar and coconut water to make the caramel sauce, then add the sliced sausage, 3 teaspoons of nuoc mam, a little bit of water (just so you can stir), a pinch of pepper, and diced tomato if you feel like it. Simmer on low heat, stir when most of the liquid has evaporated and serve it dry; or you can add more water in the beginning to have a nice brown sauce over rice. Gastronomy has cha kho with porridge. Mmm… salty, sweet, and bland innocence.
7. CHA LUA FRESH ROLL (goi cuon): wrapped in rice paper (bánh tráng) with herbs and blanched shiitake, dipped in nuoc mam. Without shiitake, this is a Nha Trang style snack. I got the mushroom inspiration from the food column of VnExpress.net, where they suggest an appetizer with cha lua, shiitake, carrot, and green bean tied together with scallion, worth a try as well.
8. CHA LUA SOUR SOUP: tomato, sweet onion, egg, and diced cha lua. Also native to Nha Trang.
9. CHA LUA and CRAB SOUP:
Shredded chicken breast, diced cha lua, boiled quail eggs, crab meat, sweet corn, and diced onion cooked in boiling bone stock for 10 minutes. Pour in some corn starch (mixed with water) and crack an egg. Serve hot with a dash of cilantro and a big bowl, because it’s light and you’re hungry :-). (Recipe translated from bepgiadinh.com.vn)
10. PAPAYA, ORANGE, and CHA LUA SALAD:
The stuff: shredded green papaya (the type that goes in Wandering Chopsticks’ green papaya salad), diced orange, bean sprout, and sliced cha lua.
The sauce: nuoc mam, olive oil, vinegar, sugar, water combined in ratio 1:1:1:2:2 (tablespoon), throw in chopped garlic and chili paste for kicks.
Mix’em all up.
And that was 10 amateur-friendly recipes. But Mai, you said 13! Yeah well call me a cheater. Here are three cha lua affairs that I utterly love but will never make at home because I’m afraid to screw them up. So here for the professionals who can never fail and the kitchen masochists who want to spend half of their day by the stove (just kidding, cooks are my heroes :-D):
11. BÁNH DẦY GIÒ: sticky rice bun with cha lua. The chewiest bun of all buns. The sticky rice is bland, the sausage is juicy and savory. You’d either hate it or love it. My dad hates it, I love it. I bought it and wrote about it. Ravenous Couple made it.
12. BÁNH CUỐN: another old timey, steamed rice roll stuffed with pork and mushroom. If one day I live far away from the Vietnamese community, this would be my most frequently missed favorite, so I have to blogged up on them as a way of savoring memories. Ravenous Couple don’t have to worry about that, because they can make their own.
13. BÚN MỘC
A soup laden with meat, yet the stock is so fresh and light. I feel at home at Tay Ho in Oakland, so I’ll keep going there for my soups. But maybe, just maybe, one day when the right planets align I will gain enough courage to make a pot. Guess whose instruction I will follow?
Seriously, is there anything that these guys haven’t made?