Thursday, March 24, 2011

Canh Chua Cá -"Pretty chua"

If you had asked me about Canh Chua  (Soup Sour if translated directly) when I was living at home with my parents, I would have told you that it's just a regular ol' soup. It's one of these many dishes that I didn't realize I absolutely loved until I found my life devoid of fishy sour soupy goodness.
Surprisingly, there has never been a time in my life when anyone has asked me about Canh Chua. In grade one, I was asked to write a journal entry about what I ate for supper last night. I distinctly remember having trouble bridging the languages and telling my teacher that I didn't know what to call it in English. She told me to just describe it and as can be expected from a kid in grade one, I wrote an eloquent laundry list of the ingredients in the soup. This is not very different from what is about to be written right now.

Canh Chua Cá (fish) recipe
Printable Version
(I got this one from my Mẹ, and she doesn't give me amounts, which explains why I cook this way. However, I threw in estimated amounts of what I used and amounts from various recipes I referred to online).

- 4 cups boiling Chicken Broth + water as needed
- 2-3 stalks of Celery, 1-inch diagonal slices, keep the leaves too. (Recipes use Taro Root, but celery works)
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1/2 540mL can of Pineapple (the other half can be frozen and used next time)
- 2 tomatoes, sliced
- 1 fish. (All of it. Trout, salmon, any fish. Or substitute shrimp)
- 2 tbsp seedless Tamarind paste or 1 tbsp Tamarind soup powder (less work!)
- 1-2 cups bean sprouts
- Some chopped Ngo Om (Rice Paddy Herb), I subbed Green Onion as the nearby Korean grocery didn't appear to have any.
- Vegetable oil
- Salt
- Pepper
- 4 tbsp Fish sauce
- 1 tsp Sugar


The scenic route
If you decide to use Tamarind paste because the Korean grocery store down the block only sells the paste and you don't feel as though it's worth the trip to Chinatown, then you're going to have to do a bit of prep with it. Cut out the 2tbsp chunk of tamarind paste and mash it up in some warm - hot water. Let it sit to dissolve, then strain it to remove the fibrous, chewy bits. Thanks to this video from for this tip, as I'm sure I would've just thrown a chunk of paste in and watched as my soup was invaded by pieces of hard, chunky tamarind. Strain the dissolved paste and set aside. This is more work than using the powder, which is just thrown into the broth.

Then prepare the rest of your ingredients, I started with the fish. Our local poissonerie (fish store) moved locations so I got one from the big name grocery store, which allowed me to de-scale a fish as I've seen Mẹ do so many times growing up. I think a fishmonger will do it for you, if asked, it can't hurt to ask. One thing I learned was, lay down that newspaper so your counter and walls aren't covered in fish scales. Give it a clean in the sink, scrape off those scales with a knife, and slice into nice steaks. Keep the head and tail. Season with salt and pepper.

Transformed into sliced

Have those other ingredients ready to go, put a bit of oil into your soup pot and sauté the onions for a minute, throw in the celery and tomato. After a couple minutes, I poured in half the pineapple with some of the juice. No one said anything about the juice, but hey, this is meant to be a hot, sweet, salty and sour soup and I tend to be notorious for improvising. Then I put the fish in, and poured the boiling chicken broth on top. In went the strained tamarind paste, the fish sauce, sugar and some pepper. Bring to a boil and let simmer until the fish is cooked. Remove from heat and add celery leaves, chopped green onion or rice paddy herb and bean sprouts. When I added the celery leaves, my kitchen began smelling of nostalgia. 

Do other bloggers have people to take pictures for them?
I kept having to wash my hands to take pictures.
 Serve it on top of rice and add a couple spoonfuls of mixed Nuoc mam (see my previous post) and you're set to eat!

I wouldn't normally say watch out for bones, but my wife is hyper-cautious of fish with bones due to the fear of asphyxiation caused by said bone. I alleviated her fear this evening by telling her that when I was a wee lad, I had a fish bone lodged in my throat when my mom took me out for lunch with a couple of my aunts. All I remember is that it hurt to swallow until they finally removed it at the hospital and that it was only after the first bite of my fish chips which made me sad because I didn't get to finish it. In any case, I explained a bone is thing enough such that one can still breathe. Crisis averted!

Mixed Nuoc Mam makes everything better

She then asked me if I thought it was good, if it fit my standard of being similar to my Mẹ's Canh Chua. The answer to this question is best summed up from a Skype conversation I was having with my cousin while cooking this:

Me: On the bright side, it smells like my mom's...
Her:  oo that's good
Me: and it tastes pretty chua
Her: that would be sad if it didn't

I don't think I'll ever recreate the same flavours and sensations that I get from eating my mom's, grandmother's or any cooking done by a relative. Instead, I will remain content with my satisfactory dishes that remind me I have something to look forward to next family get together.

 P.S. Browsing my pictures, I saw this fish head picture and remembered when my Ba (dad) would eat the fish eyes, which I found revolting. He would tell me that they make you smarter. Or see better. Both. To this day, I don't think I've ever eaten a fish eye and I'm not terribly smart and wear fairly thick glasses.
Hi, I'm a fish head, I add flavour to your broth.Yum.

Yummy yummy fish heads.


  1. Minh,ah....yummyy.Just cut the fish in 1/2,and when the fish is cooked,take it out and put it on the plate.(this way the fish looks nice and you don't have to worry about the bones...) keep on cooking with all the stuff(tomato,celery,...)
    hey Minh,Fish head is very yummy(fish with big head -salmon-).Ask Nha,she loves it.
    Chu Thai.

  2. ahah our skype convo!

    I think my dad got confused into thinking you were having troubles with the bones getting into the soup as the fish is being cooked? idk

    but I do enjoy a good fish eye socket(?)(not really the actual eye)- it's very "béo"!

  3. Dear Minh,
    I am very impressed with your blog and the details you have provided. I think it's fantastic! your cousins (those who can reach the stove and can handle knives) will be able to follow your recipes very easily. Remember that no one Canh Chua is the same, everyone has their own version and preference. You need to create your own that fits your taste. You have all the right ingredients, you will perfect with time, it's really the amount of the ingredients and you will learn it through trial and error. One suggestion is to add coriander along with your green onion, you can find that anywhere and it adds a lot of flavor. If you have an aversion to fish you can substitute with shrimp. It is just as delicious and you don't have to worry about bones. Put the peeled shrimp in last as you don't want to over cook it.
    Great idea Minh and keep up the good work! Di Huong

  4. Hey Minh, I was there years ago at the bone incidence, yah I remember being at the hospital. (I wanted to sue the restaurant at the time.) I was scared but I don't remember you being scared (weird!)