Growing up as a kid in America is fantastic, but for my parents and their generation, it must have been really hard. Why, you ask?
Well, for one thing, they left everything they owned and know behind and in an instant they were in a different country. Literally like going to sleep in Saigon and waking up in California, at least that was how it felt. They spoke Vietnamese and French, so that didn’t help. They had no money, no friends, no relatives and even the food was different. Hats off to them. They persevered, adapted and thrived like desert plants. My mother put herself through school learning English. She worked two jobs, spoke Vietnamese at home and somehow managed to cook a variety of dishes so that we didn’t forget where we came from, to which I am forever grateful.
Despite my love for the Mediterranean, I have a weakness for all good food, and especially Vietnamese cuisine. I find it clean, green and super tasty. I have tried to accumulate as much knowledge as possible over the years to be able to appreciate it like my mother and others like her. So, when I came across a dish I’d never heard of before, cha lui Lagi, it instantly raised my curiosity. I know what everyone is thinking: what the heck is cha lui lagi? Most everyone knows cha lua, gio lua, cha com or cha chien. These are assorted Vietnamese sausages most often used in banh mi, but cha lui is something else.
Cha lui, despite having the word cha (meaning grilled chopped meat, fish, shrimp) it is not really a sausage, but more like a flattened spring roll. Lui means “to skewer”. The dish is made with rice paper, tiny shrimps, chopped up pork belly, shredded wood ear mushroom and assorted spices. Think of it like a large nacho with all the topping folded to around two-fingers size, and grilled. Cha lui are normally skewered with a wooden stick, then grilled over coal until perfectly cooked on the inside, and crispy on the outside. However, there are some places that cut corners deep fry them to make it quicker. Now we know what cha lui is, but what is Lagi? Lagi is a well known commune (thi xa) in Binh Thuan Province, and if you’re wondering where in Vietnam Binh Thuan is, it’s located in the south-central coastal region about 200 kilometres north of Ho Chi Minh City. Cha lui originated in Binh Thuan Province and Lagi Commune happened to make the dish the best, hence the name cha lui Lagi.
There are a couple ways to eat cha lui once it is grilled. The original method is to wrap it with rice paper (banh trang), vermicelli, assorted herbs like thinly shaved, unripened mango, slices of cucumber, lettuce, Thai basil (hung que), red perilla (tia to) and sorrel (rau thom). Then you dip it in a special nuoc cham (marinated fish sauce) which is comprised of nuoc mam ngot (fish sauce with sugar), tomato puree, tamarind juice, chili and chopped roasted peanuts. Another way is to forego the rice paper wrapping and just add everything to a bowl, and top it with the fish sauce and roasted peanuts. Then you’re good to go. Either way, you should give it a try and enjoy this interesting dish from Lagi.
1. Quan Cha Lui Nuong Lagi
15 Dong Den // Tan Binh District, HCMC // Open daily from 4pm to 10pm.
2. Cha Lui Chi Em
2 Duong So 6 // District 7, HCMC // Open daily from 4:30pm to 10pm.
3. Cha Lui 369
343/20 To Hien Thanh // District 10, HCMC // Open daily from 4pm to 10pm.
4. Cha Lui Lagi – Nha Tho Ham
5A Chung Cu 162 Nguyễn Thi Nho // District 11, HCMC.