Did you know? The world-famous "banh mi" of Vietnam (or Vietnamese sandwiches) has another name that is pretty popular among locals - "banh mi cha lua". That suffices to say how important "cha lua" is in the making of "banh mi". This article will give you a full reveal of not only the powerful "cha lua" but also the bountiful varieties of "cha" (Vietnamese cold cuts) in Vietnamese cuisines.
Vietnamese cold cuts, with "cha lua" (steamed pork sausage) being the most common type, are Vietnamese-style sausages possessing a chewy (and a bit crunchy) texture. They are most often pearly white (depends on the meat used), ideally wrapped in banana leaves and looking like the giant version of banh tet (cylindrical sticky rice cake) from the outside. A recognized staple across the country, Vietnamese cold cuts have undergone a long history of changing and developing, thereby witnessing the birth of plentiful variants where pork is replaced by other meats as the base. Altogether they embellish the palette of Vietnamese cuisine.
A colorful selection of cold cuts for banh mi's stuffing
Although their importance may make them come across as a hard-to-approach dish, both the recipe and the making process prove the opposite.
Essential ingredients to make steamed pork sausage (cha lua) include lean pork (with a bit of fat, preferably pork shoulder) as the base, fish sauce, salt, and sugar to seasonings, garlic, pepper for the aroma, and lastly, oil. Cornstarch (to bind the ground meat) and banana leaves (to wrap before steaming) are optional.
Only two stages involved in the making process: preparation and cooking. As the case with most processed meats, the preparation stage takes up a larger amount of time and substantially determines the make or break of the final sausage.
In the preparation stage, grinding and pounding are the major acts. Grinding is simply turning the meat into a paste while pounding decides the desirable chewiness of the paste and preserves the fibrous nature of meat. Prepared spices are added in the grinding stage. The key when grinding is to prevent the heat from electric mixers cook your meat, spoiling your whole work.
Experienced cooks will freeze the meat slices first, hence the word "cold" in the translation. However, another explanation for calling these Vietnamese specialties “cold cuts” is that once processed, the finished products can be served anytime without the need for reheating.
Admittedly, the duration is quite significant, so it's not like those go-to snacks you can make within minutes in the kitchen. It takes at least one hour to deal with 500 grams of meat (around 1 pound). For this reason, Vietnamese housewives would prefer to buy the ready cold cuts available at the omnipresent markets and supermarkets, or at cold cuts-specialized stores.
A vegetarian version of Vietnamese cold cuts made from tofu (eaten with vegetarian curry in the picture)
Rather than being an independent and regular dish in the Vietnamese family meals, cold cuts are more of a complementary, together with other ingredients creating a party of flavors for any dish they accompany.
Banh mi, banh cuon, and xoi man aside, cold cuts can be easily spotted in other savory snacks or popular breakfasts of locals, such as Bun Bo Hue and Bun Cha Ca (rice noodle dishes).
Traditional handmade cold cut (cha cay) eaten with Hue's traditional cakes, served with mixed fish sauce and fried bread crumbs
Over a dozen, and counting, as if leaving any kind of protein to stay in its natural form were something Vietnamese cannot afford to do. From beef, fish (there are many kinds of fish by the way), to shrimps and crabs, locals seem to know their way around the sausages. Even pork skin can be turned into yummy comfort food, known as "nem chua" (sour sausage), thanks to the Mekong Delta residents.
Take a look at the most well-known cold cuts with our mini “sausage gallery” below.
Cha lua (pork roll or pork sausage)
Cha lua has become so ubiquitous that it's considered run-of-the-mill by most locals. That said, tasting authentic cha lua done by a decent chef can be a truly worthwhile culinary experience. As mentioned, cha lua is used in a variety of dishes in the role of a flavor enhancer. Due to its simplicity and good taste, cha lua is a nice addition to a homemade bowl of stir-fried rice (com chien) and stir-fried vermicelli (bun xao).
Cha bo (beef sausage)
Cha bo is probably the most expensive Vietnamese cold cuts of all due to the high price of beef. The aroma is outstanding, and its best companion is bread, of any kind to be honest. The strong, appealing scent of cha bo is ascribed to the multiple crushed black peppercorns in the recipe or also dill in some cooks’ preferences. The suitable cuts of beef for cha bo is a top round roast or steak (gristle, rind, and fat removed).
Cha chien (fried pork sausage)
Cha chien is affordable and especially loved by kids. Same process as most of the Vietnamese cold cuts, but instead of being steamed, the paste, or raw sausage you get after the pounding step will be squished into small portions and deep-fried to have the inviting golden-brown skin.
Cha que (cinnamon pork sausage)
The allure of cha que lies in the aroma of cinnamon. In fact, its outer color is due to the presence of cinnamon in the recipe; its shape and skin also look like a cinnamon tree. Mostly found in banh cuon, or as the case with other types of cold cuts, it can be served with bread.
Cha thu, or gio thu (marbled pork sausage)
Breathtaking visuals and texture. The presence of wood ear mushrooms is what sets this type of ‘cha" apart from its cousins. It may be scary to know that the protein in "cha thu" is the meats from head parts (ear, tongues, nose) ("thu" means head). So noticeably, there is more crunch and grease. It is mostly served on Tet, as a filling in rice paper roll or banh mi, tastes good with traditional Vietnamese rice wine or beer.
Cha ca (fried fish sausage) slices in a charming bowl of Bun Cha Ca (rice noodle with cha ca)
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Nha Trang is home of cha ca. Its raw paste can be either steamed or fried, but frying is the more popular method. Most often cha ca is seen in banh mi, and banh canh (similar to "bun" but the strands of noodles are bigger). The raw paste can also be squished into small balls that serve as ideal toppings for Vietnamese hot pots.
Cha muc - fried squid sausage
Cha muc originates from the beautiful Halong Bay (wonder of the world, in the north of Vietnam) where squids have a naturally sweeter taste than squids in other regions. One of the important tips in making cha muc is mixing the paste with pork fat and shrimp in order to create a soft texture. Once fried, cha muc is tasty, chewy, and goes with banh cuon (steamed rice rolls), or sticky rice. We also have mouthwatering "canh cua cha muc" (freshwater crab soup with cha muc) or "cha muc sot ca chua" (cha muc in tangy tomato sauce).
Cha cua - fried crab sausage
Cha cua is not so common, partly because crabs are often luxury meat in Vietnam. The paste is a mixture of crab meat and crab roe, sometimes shrimp. The charming quaint city of Hue gave birth to this delicacy, and predictably, it can go with Bun Bo Hue, bringing a stronger and better taste for the dish.
Chao tom - fried shrimp sausage or shrimp sausage skewers.
Chao tom is often served with banh hoi (Southern mini rice noodle). As the illustration above may have suggested, the short sticks which in fact are sugarcane, make chao tom distinctive from the other types of cha. Chao tom’s paste is sweetened by the sugarcane or scented with lemongrass (resulting in "chao tom boc mia" or "chao tom boc sa" respectively).
Nem chua - sour sausage
Nem chua is one of the significant types of Vietnamese cold cuts due to its incredible recipe starring pork skin. Another invention of the Southern people. In making nem chua, the meat of pork, or beef in rare cases, is fermented with "thinh gao" (roasted rice powder). So no heat is involved in the process, which makes it a dreadful food to those averse to raw meat. A lot of people are big fans though. Nem chua can be eaten with rice paper roll or fried. Inside nem chua, you can see the presence of coriander, garlic, and chili, all of which enhance its flavor.
It all started with pork sausage (cha lua), then Vietnamese in different regions got creative and created their own versions of "cha" with the characteristic meat of their hometown, or simply adding some herbs. Nonetheless, novelty is not necessarily associated with the regional meat specialties, as in the case of Hue - the old capital with fried crab sausage, or Da Nang with beef sausage. These two cities are barely known as the land of crabs or beef, but their ingenuity has presented Vietnamese with stellar delicacies.
“You’ll know it when you taste it.” can be quite an overstatement, though in fact it actually is the case with the Vietnamese cold cuts done by ethical and authentic chefs who have the expertise and the prudence to choose quality meat only for their "cha". However, given the mass production situation of today, chances are the "cha" you sample at breakfast restaurants or street food carts can be quite hard to distinguish, especially the sea-creature-based sausages, which are mostly mixed with flour or starch of some sort.
Then again, there’s the type with unmistaken color, like beef sausage (cha bo), or with a particular aroma, like cinnamon pork sausage (cha que). The size, the shape, the wrapping style (like the case of nem chua - sour sausage) or simply the dish they go with can also be obvious telltale signs. The supreme way though is to ask the one who sells them.
Along with the numerous idiosyncratic methods of dealing with meat around the world, the Vietnamese have also put their name on the culinary map with tantalizing cold cuts, or Vietnamese sausage. Backed by the Vietnamese flair for seasoning, cha lua, cha que, cha bo, and their fellows are bound to satisfy your taste buds.
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I absolutely love cha chien and cha que...so luckly my Vietnamese friend introduced me to them. Now I always go scouting for them at the Vietnamese banh mi shop in SF