Ultimate Guide to Vietnamese Head Cheese (Giò Thủ): Culture & Recipe

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Written By Hot Thai Restaurant

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We’re diving into the world of traditional Vietnamese cuisine with a dish that might sound a bit intimidating at first but is truly a delicacy: Vietnamese head cheese. Unlike what the name suggests, it’s not cheese at all, but a terrine or meat jelly made from the head of a pig or cow, flavored with garlic, onion, black pepper, and other spices. It’s a testament to the Vietnamese philosophy of using every part of the animal, ensuring nothing goes to waste.

Whether you’re a long-time fan of Vietnamese cuisine or looking to expand your culinary horizons, making Vietnamese head cheese at home is an adventure worth embarking on. Let’s get started on this culinary journey together, shall we?

What Is Vietnamese Head Cheese?

Vietnamese head cheese, or ‘giò thủ’ in Vietnamese, is a staple in the tradition-rich culinary landscape of Vietnam. Unlike what its name might suggest, this dish does not contain any cheese. Instead, it is a delicate and flavorful terrine or meat jelly, crafted from the head parts of a pig or cow. These parts are meticulously seasoned with garlic, onion, black pepper, and other spices to create a unique savory dish that perfectly embodies the Vietnamese philosophy of utilizing every part of an animal with respect and creativity.

Traditionally, Vietnamese head cheese is known for its gelatinous texture and rich, meaty flavor, achieved through a slow and careful cooking process. The making of this dish is considered an art, reflecting the frugality and resourcefulness deeply ingrained in Vietnamese culture. It serves as a testament to the skillset required to transform less commonly used parts of the animal into a delectable and appealing delicacy.

Not only is Vietnamese head cheese a celebration of flavor and texture, but it also holds a special place in the heart of Vietnamese culinary history. Often served cold and sliced thin, it is a common feature at festive occasions and family gatherings. Accompanied by fresh herbs and a tangy dipping sauce, it invites a symphony of flavors and aromas that are both complex and harmoniously balanced.

Embracing the opportunity to make Vietnamese head cheese at home is an exciting culinary adventure. It allows both seasoned fans of Vietnamese cuisine and curious newcomers to explore the rich flavors and traditions that characterize this enchanting dish. By preparing Vietnamese head cheese, we get to participate in a centuries-old tradition that not only tempts the taste buds but also pays homage to an ethos of sustainability and ingenuity.

Through this dish, we invite you to journey with us into the heart of Vietnamese cooking, where each bite tells a story of tradition, family, and the artful use of ingredients. Let’s embark on this flavorful adventure together, exploring the steps and secrets behind making authentic Vietnamese head cheese.

Essential Ingredients

To embark on the traditional journey of making Vietnamese head cheese, it’s crucial to start with the right ingredients. Let’s break down the essential components that bring this dish to life.

Meat Selection

Embarking on the preparation of Vietnamese head cheese requires a thoughtful selection of meats. Our primary ingredients include:

  • 2 pounds of pork head parts (ears, snout, and tongue), thoroughly cleaned
  • 1 pound of pork or beef shank, adding a rich depth of flavor
  • 2 pig’s feet, cleaned and split; these are key for their high collagen content, which naturally thickens the broth into a gelatinous texture upon cooling

Fresh Herbs and Spices

Fresh herbs and spices are pivotal in achieving the authentic taste of Vietnamese head cheese. Our aromatic lineup includes:

  • 1 large onion, peeled and quartered, to infuse the broth with a subtle sweetness
  • 4-5 cloves of garlic, minced, adding a pungent depth
  • 1 tablespoon of black peppercorns, whole, for a warm, spicy kick
  • A handful of fresh cilantro and Vietnamese coriander (rau răm), chopped for garnish and added freshness
  • 2 bay leaves, which lend earthy and floral notes to the complexity of the dish

These elements work in harmony to season the meat beautifully as it simmers, infusing the dish with unforgettable flavors.

Binding Agents

In Vietnamese head cheese, the gelatinous texture is achieved not through added gelatin but through the natural gelatin found in pig’s feet and other meat parts. For our recipe, ensuring the dish sets properly without artificial binders, we rely on:

  • The natural collagen from 2 pig’s feet, which, when cooked slowly, dissolves into the broth, acting as a natural gelling agent upon cooling.

Required Tools and Equipment

To create the authentic Vietnamese head cheese or ‘giò thủ,’ having the right tools and equipment is crucial. Let’s dive into what you’ll need to bring this traditional dish to life in your kitchen.

Specialized Cooking Utensils

A large stockpot is essential; it should be big enough to hold the pork head, shank, and feet, along with enough water to cover them. This will serve as the cornerstone of your cooking process, allowing the meats to simmer and release their flavors and gelatin.

A sharp boning knife is indispensable for trimming and preparing the meats. Its precision will help you navigate through the cuts smoothly, ensuring the meat is properly prepared for the stockpot.

A fine mesh sieve or cheesecloth is required for straining the broth to achieve the clear, gelatinous texture that is characteristic of a well-made ‘giò thủ.’ This step is vital for removing any bits and impurities, leaving you with a pristine base for your dish.

A terrine mold or a deep dish is perfect for assembling the head cheese. After layering the cooked meat and pouring the strained broth over it, this container will shape your ‘giò thủ’ as it cools and sets in the refrigerator.

Safety Gear

Safety should always be a priority in the kitchen, especially when handling raw meats and sharp tools. A pair of cut-resistant gloves can protect your hands from the boning knife during the meat preparation phase. These gloves are not only a shield against potential cuts but also provide better grip on the utensils and meat.

Heat-resistant oven mitts or gloves are necessary when dealing with the large stockpot. They will protect your hands from the heat when moving the pot or checking on the simmering meats, ensuring you can manage the process comfortably and safely.

Preparation Steps

Embarking on the journey to create Vietnamese head cheese, or ‘giò thủ,’ requires meticulous preparation. Let’s dive into the initial steps to ensure our meats, herbs, spices, and cooking station are primed for this traditional delicacy.

Cleaning and Preparing the Meats

First, we’ll tackle the meats which form the soul of ‘giò thủ.’ Using a large stockpot filled with water, bring it to a gentle boil. As it heats, thoroughly rinse the pork head parts, shank, and pig’s feet under cold water. This step is crucial to remove any impurities and ensure our broth will be clear and flavorful. After rinsing, carefully place the meats into the boiling water for a quick blanching of about 5 minutes which helps in further purification.

With our cut-resistant gloves on, remove the meats from the pot, and let them cool slightly for handling. Using a sharp boning knife, we meticulously trim off any excess fat and unwanted parts. This process is not only about cleaning but also involves cutting the meats into manageable pieces that will fit into our terrine mold later in the cooking process. Set the cleaned and trimmed meats aside on a clean tray as we prepare the aromatic base for our dish.

Preparing Herbs and Spices

It’s time to focus on the herbs and spices that will infuse ‘giò thủ’ with its distinctive flavors. Gather fresh herbs such as Vietnamese coriander, lemon leaves, and green onions. Rinse these under cold water and pat them dry with paper towels. Mince these herbs finely since they will be mixed directly into our meat blend, allowing their flavors to permeate throughout.

For spices, we have star anise, cinnamon sticks, black peppercorns, and coriander seeds. Toast these lightly in a dry pan over medium heat until they become fragrant—this step enhances their flavors. After toasting, use a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder to crush the spices into a coarse powder. This blend of herbs and spices will give ‘giò thủ’ its unique aroma and taste that’s unmistakably Vietnamese.

Setting Up the Cooking Station

With our meats cleaned and aromatics prepped, it’s essential to organize our cooking station for efficiency and safety. Place the large stockpot back on the stove and fill it with fresh water—this will be used to cook the prepared meats slowly. Position a fine mesh sieve or cheesecloth near the pot to strain the broth later, ensuring its clarity and smoothness.

Arrange all prepped ingredients—meats, minced herbs, and ground spices—alongside the stove within easy reach. This setup will streamline the cooking process, allowing us to focus on crafting ‘giò thủ’ without interruptions. Remember to keep heat-resistant oven mitts and our safety gear close by as we’ll be handling hot utensils and ingredients.

With everything in place, we’re now ready to embark on the intricate cooking process of ‘giò thủ,’ bringing together all these elements to create a dish that’s deeply rooted in Vietnamese culinary tradition.

Cooking Instructions

Diving into the cooking process, we’ll guide you through each step to ensure your Vietnamese head cheese, or ‘giò thủ,’ comes out perfectly. Let’s embark on this culinary adventure with clear, easy-to-follow instructions.

Boiling the Meats

First, place the pork head parts, shank, and pig’s feet in a large stockpot. Fill the pot with enough water to cover the meats by at least 2 inches. Add 2 tablespoons of salt and bring the water to a boil over high heat. Once boiling, reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Skim off any foam or impurities that rise to the surface for the first 15 minutes of cooking. This initial step is crucial for a clear broth and to ensure our head cheese has a clean taste.

Continue to simmer the meats for about 3 hours, or until they are tender and easily pull apart with a fork. The long cooking time allows the collagen in the pig’s feet to break down, which is essential for the gelatinous texture of our head cheese. Remember to check the pot occasionally, adding more hot water if needed to keep the meats submerged.

Combining the Ingredients

Once the meats are cooked and tender, remove them from the broth and let them cool slightly. When cool enough to handle, meticulously remove any bones and undesirable parts, trimming the meat into small, bite-sized pieces. Discard the bones and return the trimmed meat to a large mixing bowl.

In a separate bowl, prepare the spice mixture by combining 1 tablespoon of minced garlic, 2 tablespoons of fish sauce, 1 teaspoon of ground black pepper, and 1 tablespoon of sugar. Mix these ingredients well to ensure the sugar dissolves completely.

Pour this spice mixture over the trimmed meats in the mixing bowl. Add finely chopped green onions and a generous handful of chopped fresh herbs like cilantro and mint. Gently mix everything together, ensuring the meats are evenly coated with the spices and herbs. This combination of ingredients infuses the meat with aromatic flavors, bringing the essence of Vietnam to your kitchen.

Shaping the Head Cheese

Prepare a loaf pan or a terrine mold by lining it with plastic wrap, leaving enough overhang to cover the top once filled. Transfer the meat mixture into the prepared pan, pressing down firmly to pack everything tightly. The goal is to remove any air pockets and ensure the head cheese will hold its shape once cooled.

Fold the overhanging plastic wrap over the top, covering the meat mixture completely. Place the filled pan in the refrigerator and let it set for at least 6 hours, or overnight. This resting period allows the collagen from the meats to solidify, binding everything together.

After the chilling period, remove the head cheese from the refrigerator. Unwrap and gently invert onto a cutting board. You should now have a perfectly shaped head cheese, ready to be sliced and served. The final product is a testament to the careful preparation and blend of flavors that makes ‘giò thủ’ a cherished Vietnamese delicacy. Enjoy this flavorful journey with each bite.

Cooling and Setting

After meticulously preparing and combining the meats with our aromatic spice mixture and fresh herbs, we guide our ‘giò thủ’ into its final steps. Cooling and setting are crucial to achieving the perfect texture and form. This phase transforms our mixture into the firm, sliceable delicacy that is the hallmark of Vietnamese head cheese.

Chilling the Head Cheese

Once we’ve shaped our ‘giò thủ’ in a loaf pan, it’s imperative to let it cool at room temperature for about an hour. This gradual cooling allows the gelatin to start setting without shocking the mixture, which can affect its final texture. After it cools down slightly, we transfer it into the refrigerator for further solidification. It’s essential to leave it undisturbed overnight or for a minimum of 8 hours. The cold temperature facilitates the gelatin in the broth to solidify, binding all the ingredients together into a firm, cohesive loaf. The long chilling period also enhances the flavors, allowing them to meld together beautifully.

Unmolding and Slicing

Unmolding our ‘giò thủ’ is a step that requires gentleness and patience. We start by running a knife along the edges of the pan to loosen the head cheese. Then, we place a serving plate on top of the loaf pan and, with a confident flip, invert both the plate and pan. With a gentle tap, the head cheese should slide out onto the plate. If it resists, letting it sit inverted for a few minutes often does the trick.

Slicing the head cheese is an art form in itself. We use a sharp, thin knife, ensuring we make smooth, even slices to showcase the rich texture and the beautiful distribution of meats and herbs. It’s ideal to slice it just before serving to retain its moisture and texture. Serving it at room temperature brings out the full spectrum of flavors that we’ve carefully built into our ‘giò thủ,’ making each slice a testament to the art of Vietnamese head cheese crafting.

Serving Suggestions

Vietnamese head cheese, or ‘giò thủ,’ is a unique and flavorful delicacy that shines when served correctly. Let’s dive into the best ways to savor this traditional dish.

Traditional Accompaniments

Giò thủ is best enjoyed with a bouquet of traditional Vietnamese condiments and sides. Here’s how we love to serve it:

  • Sliced Thinly: Cut the head cheese into thin slices to fully appreciate its texture and flavors.
  • Fresh Herbs: A side of fresh Vietnamese herbs, such as cilantro, mint, and basil, adds a refreshing contrast to the rich, meaty flavor.
  • Pickled Vegetables: A plate of pickled carrots and daikon radish offers a crisp, tangy counterpoint that cleanses the palate.
  • Crusty Baguettes: Serve alongside warm, crusty baguettes or traditional Vietnamese rice crackers for a satisfying crunch.
  • Dipping Sauces: A small bowl of chili sauce or fish sauce mixed with lime juice and garlic enhances the giò thủ with spicy and tangy notes.

These accompaniments embrace the harmony of flavors and textures that Vietnamese cuisine is celebrated for, making every bite of giò thủ a delightful experience.

Innovative Pairing Ideas

For those looking to explore beyond the traditional, here are some creative pairing ideas to elevate your giò thủ experience:

  • Head Cheese Salad: Cube the head cheese and toss it with mixed greens, fresh herbs, a sprinkle of crushed peanuts, and a drizzle of a tangy dressing for a refreshing salad.
  • Vietnamese Sandwiches (Bánh Mì): Slice the giò thủ thinly and layer it in a bánh mì with pickled vegetables, cilantro, cucumber, and spicy mayo for a delicious twist on the classic sandwich.
  • Cheese Board: Innovate your next cheese board by adding thin slices of giò thủ alongside an assortment of cheeses, fruits, and nuts. It’s especially amazing with figs or apricot jam!
  • Asian Inspired Tacos: Use giò thủ as the main protein in tacos, topped with a quick pickled slaw, a squeeze of lime, and a drizzle of sriracha mayo for an Asian-inspired treat.

Make-Ahead Tips

Vietnamese head cheese, or giò thủ, is an excellent make-ahead dish that benefits from chilling time to develop its flavors and firm texture.

Storing Vietnamese Head Cheese

After the Vietnamese head cheese has set and solidified in the refrigerator, it’s paramount to store it correctly to maintain its freshness and flavor. Wrap the head cheese tightly in cling film or aluminum foil to minimize air exposure. Store it in the coldest part of your refrigerator. Properly wrapped giò thủ can be stored for up to one week. For longer storage, consider freezing it. To freeze, wrap the head cheese in a layer of cling film followed by a layer of aluminum foil or place it in a freezer bag, squeezing out as much air as possible. Frozen giò thủ will keep for up to three months. Remember to label it with the freezing date.

Serving After Storing

When you’re ready to serve your Vietnamese head cheese after storing, there are a few steps to ensure the best taste and texture. If the giò thủ was frozen, thaw it in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours before you plan to serve it. This slow thawing ensures that the head cheese maintains its texture. Once thawed, or if you’re retrieving it from the refrigerator, let it sit at room temperature for 10-15 minutes before slicing. This brief resting period makes slicing easier and enhances the flavor profile of the dish. Serve the head cheese as part of a charcuterie board, with fresh herbs, pickled vegetables, or incorporate it into your favorite Vietnamese dishes.


We’ve journeyed through the rich flavors and traditions of Vietnamese head cheese, uncovering the secrets behind its preparation. It’s clear that giò thủ is more than just a dish; it’s a celebration of culture, craftsmanship, and culinary delight. By following the steps we’ve shared, you’re well on your way to creating a masterpiece that’s both a nod to tradition and a testament to your cooking skills. Remember, the key to perfect head cheese lies in the quality of ingredients, patience during preparation, and the joy of sharing it with others. So gather your friends and family, and let the flavors of Vietnam bring you closer. Happy cooking!

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