– QUYNHCHI, aka Little Mom – Translator: Mai
Most Vietnamese like chả, and I like chả even more than most people, because it tastes good, it’s good for you, and it’s good with everything. Chả appears subtly but unmistakably in noodle soups like bún bò, bún mộc, bún thang… Chả fares well with the lustrous steamed rolls of bánh cuốn, with bland white rice, topping sweet sticky rice, inside a crusty loaf of bánh mì… You can also eat chả by itself as a cold cut, then it tastes even better.
Why is chả good for you? Because of what comes into it and how people make it. Vegan chả aside, all chả are pure meat. Take chả lụa (silk sausage) for instance, the pork must be lean, the fresher it is from the slaughter house the higher quality the sausage has. Traditional chả makers don’t wash the pork with water but use instead a clean cloth to wipe off its excess moisture before the pasting process. These days the meat is most likely ground by machines(*), but a good log of chả used to be made from pounding and kneading the meat as one would do with sticky rice to make mochi. The pounding has its specific rhythm to success, which is a smooth, sticky, elastic mass of perfect consistency to be rolled up tight in banana leaves and boiled for hours. So if we come upon a warm log fresh out of the process, we’re guaranteed its cleanliness and pure content.
But chả lụa isn’t the only type of Vietnamese meat sausage around. Not all are made from pork, not all are served in its boiled final form, and not all contain just meat. Recently I got enticed by four types of chả from Đức Hương in Houston.
1. Chả heo chiên (fried pork chả):
Same content as chả lụa, with a textural twist. Fried chả is also in log shape, but the log is smaller than its boiled counterpart, and it has less pepper. The meat is slightly more chewy and the rim covered in the aroma of frying oil. Some of the chả lụa‘s loyal fans would detest chả chiên‘s inconsistency, but I think those bite-sized round slices that fit perfectly well in a crusty loaf of bánh mì or layer on top a scoop of hot sweet sticky rice would make quite a fair start for any busy day.
2. Chả bò chiên (fried beef chả):
Perhaps it’s because of the always-available, always-fresh-and-cheap Texas beef that a slice of beef sausage also shines a healthy golden brown hue. Although the texture errs on the hard side and the taste is a tad too spicy, the heartfelt aroma of beef entangling with a subtle fresh garlic zing makes chả bò chiên the best rice companion for the wintry months.
3. Chả cốm (rice flake chả):
Chả cốm is also made from pork, but like its name indicates, it contains a few handfuls of young rice flakes (cốm). The light green flakes scatter inside and on the surface of the pale beige meat log, their natural viscidity (from the heating of sticky rice) increases the meat’s chewiness and causes the appearance of gossamer strings woven into the meat when the log is sliced. Chả cốm is not as blatantly flavorful as chả bò, nonetheless a complete entity to be served by itself as a friendly witty representation of the rural Vietnam.
4. Chả gà chiên (fried chicken chả)
This turns out to be a pleasant surprise to me. The meat is neither too hard nor too soft but a bit crunchy, not fatty but savory, not strongly spiced but lingering at the tip of the tongue for quite some time. At first I actually wavered over buying the chicken sausage, but now I believe that this is the “phoenix sausage” in “peacock and phoenix sausages” (“nem công chả phượng”) that used to be offered to the monarchs and nobels of the old days. Wouldn’t you agree?
I can’t remember exactly how much each type costs, but the whole deal of four set me back by $20. That’s not expensive at all, considering the talent and the hard work poured into keeping alive a taste of that faraway home.
Address: Đức Hương Giò Chả in Bellaire, Houston
11369 Bellaire Blvd, Ste 950
Houston, TX 77072
(near the Vietnam War Memorial)
(*): Note from Mai: double-ground meat is easier to obtain than kneaded meat, but would give the sausage a porous texture instead of a silky smooth one.