If Westerners are proud of their Camembert, Vietnamese flaunt their version of cheese, chao
Hot pot with fermented tofu, a popular dish made by combining vegetables, mushroom, and soft tofu at the Mandala Restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City's Dist. 1
Chao (fermented tofu) is a popular ingredient in Vietnamese cuisine and a small jar of chao is a common sight in kitchens.
Often described as Asian cheese, it is Vietnam's answer to Camembert.
Like cheese, it is greasy and creamy.
There are two main kinds of chao, one in brine and the other dry. The former is more popular and comes in two colors: white and red.
To make it, boil some tofu and then cool it. Place banana leaves in a winnowing basket and the tofu on them to completely drain the water. Cover the tofu with another layer of banana leaves and leave for three days.
Boil water and salt, cut the tofu into cubes, and put it in the brine with a little sugar. Let it cool. Then, if you like it spicy, add some chopped chili to the brine. It is this variety that is a little red.
Add some white liquor and cover the jar tightly. Leave it in the sun for five or six days.
To make the dried variety, again cut the tofu into cubes, put them in the winnowing basket, cover with banana leaves, and leave for three days. Remove the leaves, add some boiling water to clean the tofu, and drain. Sprinkle a mixture of salt and pepper on the tofu.
Clean some galingale, shred fine, and marinate with the tofu for 20 minutes. Pour white liquor until it completely covers the tofu, cover tightly, and leave it in the sun for 20 days.
It can be said that it gets tastier with age. The dried tofu has a gray color.
When the chao is done, it is soft as butter and tastes greasy and fat like cheese.
The dried variety smells acrid and tastes very fatty. It is an acquired taste. But once you get used to the smell, it is positively addicting.
You can mix it with sugar and lemon juice to make a delicious dipping sauce for simply cooked pork, unripe banana, cucumber, star fruit, or vegetables.
Chao in the brine is used in restaurants as a condiment, ingredient, and food by itself.
To enjoy tofu delicacies in Ho Chi Minh City, try the following places:
56/16 Lu Gia Housing Estate, Ward 15, District 11
110 Suong Nguyet Anh Street, District 1
It is popular at restaurants specializing in hot pot with goat or grilled goat breast. People who have eaten goat breast dipped in the sauce swear by it, but agree that the dish will be tasteless without the chao.
Every restaurant has its own secret recipe to make the sauce. Generally it is made from fermented tofu, brine, sugar, and lemon. The sauce is a bit thick, and is considered ideal when a little of it sticks to the goat breast but not too much to make it salty.
Chao is used as an ingredient to make some delicious dishes - like braised duck meat with fermented tofu. The chao does not overwhelm the taste of the duck but makes it tasty, sweet, greasy, and fragrant.
Chao is also indispensable dish in the vegetarian menu. Hot pot with fermented tofu is a very popular dish, made by combining vegetables, mushroom, and soft tofu. It is served with vermicelli, noodles, and water spinach stems.