T is for Tôm Chua (Sour Shrimp)

imageThe cuisine of Việt Nam’s old imperial city of Huế features a number of local specialties that aren’t so well known in the rest of the country. The lightly fermented shrimp condiment called tôm chua, sour shrimp, is one of these. My in-laws tell stories of visitors from Sai Gon eyeing the plump pink shrimp in reddish sauce, wondering what main dishes it goes with and how to eat it.

Although the shrimp are fermented, they look so fresh you’d think they’d been caught moments before making their appearance on the serving tray.image

My mother-in-law says the best tôm chua is prepared with shrimp grown in the brackish water of the Cầu Hai lagoon, about an hour outside Huế by motorbike. She says the carefully chosen shrimp are rinsed, their heads removed, and they are left briefly to marinate in rice wine, then transferred to a strainer to dry off. In the next step, they are combined with the necessary flavourings: thinly sliced garlic, shredded galangal and fresh bamboo, red chilis cut in thin lengthwise strips, sticky rice, and fish sauce. Amongst all the flavourings, galangal and chilis are the ones that give the tôm chua its characteristic flavour.

The ingredients are placed in a ceramic jar to ferment for seven to ten days in a cool place, preferably where the temperature can be kept steady. Some people even keep the jars buried to maintain the ideal cool atmosphere for the shrimp to ferment. The steadier the temperature, the tastier and more fragrant the final product. The fermentation turns the shrimp a reddish colour, as if they’d been cooked, the same way lemon juice or vinegar will “cook” fish.

At this point, the cook will add honey and maybe more galangal for extra flavour. Now, the shrimp are ready to bottle in clear jars that show off the lovely colours: pink or orange shrimp in red sauce dotted with yellow bamboo shreds, ruby red chilis and white garlic nubs. My mother-in-law says the condiment offers the perfect yin-yang balance, and all the important flavours: sweet, sour, bitter, and bùi (best translated as richness), linger on the palate.image

Tôm chua is most typically served as a side dish with boiled pork sliced thin and arranged in overlapping concentric circles, and sautéed bean sprouts or boiled rau muống (water spinach). Alongside these, finely sliced local vả figs, a type of astringent green banana called chuối chát, and sour unripe starfruit top a pile of herbs including basil and coriander, and of course, more red chilis. The result is an eye- and palate-pleasing feast fit for the Nguyễn kings who once ruled Việt Nam (in some cases as puppets) from the old imperial city of Huế.



About Chris Galvin

Chris Galvin is a Canadian writer, editor and photographer dividing her time between Canada and Viet Nam. Her essay Flood Season was a finalist for the 2012 Best of the Net prize, and Discovering Hến Rice in Central Việt Nam won third place (shared) and a Readers’ Choice Award in the 2015 I Must Be Off! Travel Essay Contest. Her work has appeared in various anthologies and literary journals, including Descant, Asian Cha, PRISM International, Room, and others. She has written in Vietnamese and English for Vietnam Tourism Review/Kham Pha Du Lich Vietnam Magazine, Travellive, and Du Lich Giai Tri. Chris is currently looking for a home for her recently completed manuscript, Breakfast Under the Bodhi Tree, a book about living, eating, and tour-guiding in Viet Nam.
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7 Responses to T is for Tôm Chua (Sour Shrimp)

  1. Erin says:

    I love hearing about the different foods, and your pictures are so wonderful!

    You said, “sour unripe starfruit” — is that usually how it’s served? My son and I saw some at the store the other day but it looked too green to me, so I didn’t get any to try.

  2. It looks wonderful, that gorgeously rich colour, but think I’ll appreciate it from a distance. Not sure my tastebuds would survive the chillies!

  3. Chris says:

    The flavour of the galangal is quite strong too; not everyone likes it. The first time I tried sour shrimp, I didn’t care for it, but I have aquired a liking for it. Now it’s one of the dishes I miss when I’m far from Huế.

  4. Susi Lovell says:

    Love all the colors! So is galangal hot-spicy or a different kind of spicy?

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