Continuing our series about traditional Vietnamese Tet food is gio thu, or head cheese. This is not a cheese at all, but a cold cut made from a pig’s head but can also be made with calf or sheep. Congealed together by the natural gelatin of the head organs, gio thu is served as a cold cut and also luncheon meat. During the Tet celebration it is often served as a charcuterie to be dipped in soy sauce and chili peppers.
Various forms of head cheese can be found all over the world. In Vietnam, the gio thu is made with pretty much anything you can find on a pigs head.. including the ears, snout, cheek, and tongue. You can also use the ham hock as well since it contains mostly skin and a small bit of pork meat if you can’t find cheek. This is combined with black fungus, fish sauce, garlic and shallots, and black peppercorns and congealed to a chewy and crunchy goodness.
The pig is a treasured animal in Vietnamese culture and back in the day, pigs were commonly used as dowry gifts. Now whole roasted pigs are often served at engagement ceremonies and other celebrations. No doubt when pigs are slaughtered for the feast of Tet, no part of the pig is wasted. This is my mom’s recipe for gio thu.
Gio Thu Vietnamese Head Cheese
- 2 pig ears
- 2 pig tongue
- 1 snout or cheek
- 2 ham hock (optional if wanting slightly more meaty texture-bones discarded)
- 2.5 tbs fish sauce
- 1 ts sugar
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 medium shallots, minced
- 2 tbs coarsely cracked peppercorns
- 1 cup black fungus (whole woodear mushrooms) soaked for about 1/2 hr and drained
- cooking oil
- 2-3 empty medium sized round tin cans or cardboard cans and plastic sandwich bags
Rinse the ears, tongue, snout and hamhock and boil in a large pot for about 45 minutes or until the pig ears are soft–but not too soft. A good way to check is that you can pierce the skin of the pig ears with your finger nails. Drain and soak in a cold water bath until cool. This keeps the skin of the pork from turning dark and cools it down as well.
Slice the pig ears thinly, about 1/4 inch wide. The tongue may have a thin white layer on top. Shave off this layer with a knife or peeler and slice the tongue similarly. Do the same with the snout–there maybe sections of the snout that has hair still on so you can discard that. Remove the bone from the hamhock and also cut in small pieces.
In a large nonstick wok or pan, heat a few tablespoons of cooking oil and add the shallots and garlic. Saute until it becomes aromatic and then add the pig ears, snout, tongue, and hamhock. Add the cracked peppercorns, sugar, and fish sauce and fungus. Continue to saute and stir and you will notice the liquid from meats turning viscous sticky, about 10 minutes or so.
Now prepare your containers (medium sized tin cans or those cheese puff cans also works). Place sandwich bags inside the empty cans and fill the containers–you really want to pack it in and fill it as much as you can–the head cheese should be very tightly packed and full. We used a ziplock bag above, but it’s better to use a regular one so you can tie the end with a rubber band. Seal the bag and place something heavy on top and store in the fridge overnight. The gio thu will set and you’ll have a lovely well composed head cheese!
Cooks note: Sometime a bit of alcohol such as vodka infused with cinnamon, star anise, coriander, fennel is added to the seasoning which we did not use.