Vietnamese Sweet and Sour Fish Soup with Noodles - Canh Chua Ca
Moderate - You'll be right
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A wildly popular soup in every Vietnamese household is canh chua ca (Vietnamese sweet and sour soup). There’s multiple variations of this dish as there are so many different vegetables and types of fish you can use, but there are also some core ingredients that cannot be missed—pineapple, tomatoes, fish sauce and tamarind pulp. Vietnamese sweet and sour soup is extremely versatile as it can be served as is, with rice, rice noodles, or even as a hot pot option; a great Vietnamese soup option for the entire family to get into.
In our home, Vietnamese sweet and sour fish hot pot was a meal to be enjoyed with friends and family. A large pot of sweet and sour soup, once planted in the middle of the dining table, would go a long way to feed multiple families at once. Imagine a soup brimming with vegetables such as Chinese cabbage (wombok), water spinach, okra, bean sprouts, mushrooms and seafood such as whole prawns and chunks of fish. This meal came with a lot of responsibility. If you put something in the soup, it was your responsibility to ‘fish’ it out before it overcooked. The memory of rubbing shoulders with the family member next to me while trying to fish out ingredients for the bed of rice vermicelli noodles in my bowl, followed by a ladle of sweet and sour soup is a sensory experience I miss very dearly.
Mum always told me that the most integral flavour in canh chua comes from tamarind, and that everything else is balanced around its tartness. Tamarind can come fresh (strictly seasonal in late autumn), as a puree (major supermarkets), a powder (Vietnamese supermarkets) or as I prefer, a block of pulp. Tamarind pulp can be difficult to find but is incredibly simple to work with once in your grasp. It’s the key to transforming the broth with the iconic sour and sweet notes that identify this soup.
If you crave the polarising flavours of sweet and sour, do yourself a favour and give this recipe a whirl to experience them the Vietnamese way, in this classic and much loved sweet and sour soup.
Struggling to get your hands on those hard-to-find ingredients? Check out my Canh Chua Cooking Kit to get all the essential ingredients you need to make this soup.
350-450g barramundi or snapper, cut into 3-4cm chunks
400-450g canned pineapple pieces, in juices or half fresh pineapple, chopped in pieces
3 ripe tomatoes (any variety), quartered
250g bean sprouts
¼ Chinese wombok cabbage or white cabbage, chopped in 3-4cm pieces.
200g button or swiss brown mushrooms, halved
2L chicken stock or 2L reduced salt chicken stock
110g of tamarind pulp, cubed (2cm) or 75g tamarind puree
300ml hot water
4 king, tiger or banana prawns (optional)*
4 cloves of garlic minced
25ml cooking oil
2 red chillies (optional)
2 tablespoons sugar
70ml premium fish sauce
½ teaspoon anchovy salt or 1 teaspoon sea salt
1 bunch Thai basil, roughly chopped
1 bunch rice paddy herb finely chopped (Optional)
300-400g rice vermicelli noodles
In a medium bowl, soak tamarind pulp with hot water for 10 mins then break up the pulp with the back of a tablespoon, and continually mash it against the side of the bowl until paste-like. Allow to sit for 5 mins before draining the tamarind water into a small bowl with a sieve, using the back of the spoon to further strain, then set aside. If using tamarind puree, omit this step.
In a large pot, add 2L of chicken stock, sugar, sea salt, fish sauce and pineapple (with juices), bring to the boil, then add tamarind water or tamarind puree. Bring to the boil then simmer on low.
Add fish and prawns to the simmering pot and poach for 5 mins or until just cooked-through, then remove and set aside.
In the meantime, in a small pan heat oil on medium then add garlic and sauté for 3-5 mins or until lightly golden, then set aside in a small bowl.
Add tomatoes and cabbage to the stock and cook on medium for 8-10 mins, or until cabbage has softened.
During this time, bring a large pot of water with a table spoon of salt to the boil then add thin rice vermicelli and boil on high for 7-8 mins, then strain and pour into a large bowl of cold water. Portion out in serving sized bundles immediately into a colander to prevent noodles from sticking together.
To the soup, add bean sprouts, mushrooms and whole chillies,bring to the boil then simmer for 1-2 mins.
The soup should be well balanced with sweet, salty and sour notes. Add fish sauce if the soup is not savoury enough, sugar if too sour or tamarind water (or a squeeze of lime) if too sweet. Remove from heat and garnish generously with Thai basil, rice paddy herb and garlic oil.
To serve, place a serving of rice noodles into a large bowl and microwave for 30 seconds to improve the texture. Add fish, prawns and cover with soup.
Serving suggestion: For a traditional experience, serve with a dipping sauce consisting of 2-3 tablespoons of fish sauce and freshly cut red chillies on the side. Dip any of the ingredients from the soup into the sauce before devouring, and promptly follow with some noodles and a finishing spoonful of soup.