“Canh” refers to a soup that is eaten in a shared family style dinner as opposed to a noodle soup like pho / bun bo hue / bun thang. (one bowl soup meals). I started writing about canh and the Vietnamese family dinner but it grew beyond this specific scope so I think I’ll leave “canh” in the general sense for another post. Canh chua is a special one.
Similar to the more famous Tom Yum soup from Thailand, canh chua uses tamarind as its sour base but the flavor profiles are very different. There is no lemongrass, galangal, or ginger. Tomato wedges and pineapple determine the sweet and sour. Bean sprouts, onion, taro stems, and okra are common vegetables in this soup. Canh chua is unique in its use of “ngo om” - rice paddy herb.
This herb is not used in many other dishes although some northern style pho restaurants in San Jose started serving it with their Hanoi style pho. I never saw it in Vietnam and neither my northern family nor my southern family had it with pho growing up in Vietnam. (Not to say it’s not served very regionally.) The herb is hard to disconnect from canh chua for me; it’s basically the only dish that uses it so (for me) they are strongly tied together.
The soup is finally garnished with fragrant toasty fried minced garlic. (I ended up being too lazy to mince and fry garlic so I used some I purchased that wasn’t nearly as fragrant. Otherwise, it really adds to the soup!)
Canh chua is special in the sense that it is commonly used while preparing a whole fish. A family may catch/purchase a whole fish (commonly catfish) and cook the steaks as a caramel braised claypot dish and cook the head and tail as the soup. So those two dishes commonly go together.
My mom managed to raise six children and prepare a traditional Vietnamese family dinner on a daily basis…a pot of rice (of course), a rich salty protein, a lighter vegetable stir fry, and “canh” soup to finish the meal. However, canh chua is hearty enough to serve on its own or just alongside a fried fish. (On it’s own, the fish is cooked in the soup and removed, put on a plate, and dashed with fish sauce as the protein, the vegetables in the soup serve as the side and the broth is the soup.) With six kids, our family rarely had the money or opportunity to eat in a restaurant but when we did this was the dish we ordered.) To make it properly, the ingredient list is kind of long to make it an every day soup.
At home, my mom hardly ever made it with a whole fish as I described. A few minced shrimp was all that was included. In my recent soup, I used a handful of bay shrimp that I had in the freezer. I wish I had okra but I’m cooking for one so including all the ingredients would make too big a pot.
Sweet, sour, spicy, savory, seafood, vegetables, fruit, herbaceous and fragrant…canh chua hits all the notes. The spongy taro stems soak up spicy broth and are texturally unique. If you like tom yum, give canh chua a try.