A culinary journey exploring Vietnam’s soup riches
Let’s delve into traditional Vietnamese soup, known as canh, which is at the heart of every home cooked meal from Hanoi to Saigon.
Vietnamese cuisine is renowned for its balance of textures and aromas. Among its culinary creations, canh, holds a special place in the hearts and stomachs of the Vietnamese people. Canh refers to a soup typically made with leafy greens or root vegetables, with added protein such as pork, shrimp or fish. This is one staple of Vietnamese cuisine that often goes unnoticed.
Canh is strongly associated with family meals, as each household has its own unique recipes, even for the same dish. This makes canh a memorable and special part of many Vietnamese people's lives, especially for those living alone or far away from their home country. The list of variations is as long a national highway, many would joke, but here are some of the most popular Vietnamese soups for you to explore:
1. Canh rau - Soup with green vegetables
Canh rau embodies freshness and vitality. Vietnam's tropical climate provides a variety of flavorful green vegetables year-round. This simple soup, featuring seasonal leafy greens, is not only delicious but also a nutritious way to incorporate more greens into one's diets.
During my childhood, I was not particularly fond of eating vegetables. I would often refuse most green dishes, and there were even times when I would skip a meal if my sister used vegetables as a bargaining chip. However, my mother had a gentle solution to encourage me. She would kindly offer me a small portion of canh rau, and despite my aversion to greens, I could not resist the flavor that complemented a meal so well.
One popular variation is water spinach soup, known as canh rau muong in Vietnamese cuisine, which is particularly popular in Hanoi and across Vietnam. Water spinach is a versatile vegetable widely used in Vietnamese cooking due to its crisp texture and slightly sweet flavor. In Hanoi, canh rau muong is made using simple ingredients such as lime juice, dracontomelon, or tomatoes, which add a touch of sourness while allowing the natural essence of water spinach to shine through.
During the scorching hot months in Hanoi, this soup takes the spotlight as my absolute favorite dish. Its refreshing flavor serves as an antidote to combat the sweltering heat.
Another popular soup featuring green vegetables is canh rau mong toi, or malabar spinach soup. Malabar spinach has a mild taste and a somewhat slimy texture when cooked. It is often cooked with crab paste to create a soup that pairs perfectly with meat dishes. Rice paddy crabs are ground with salt until well-kneaded. The resulting mixture is then mixed with water and filtered, allowing it to float on the broth. Other variations may include dried or fresh shrimp, as well as the addition of luffa.
2. Canh rau cu - Tuber soup
Tuber soup, known as canh rau cu, offers a delightful combination of flavors and textures. The broth, made from bone broth or enriched with ground pork, adds savory depth to the soup. This soup is perfect for rainy days or colder months, providing comfort and warmth.
One popular variation is canh khoai mo, featuring ube, a root vegetable known for its creamy texture. Simmered with pork bones or shrimp, this soup creates a comforting and satisfying dining experience. The yam's creaminess adds a touch of sweetness and earthiness to the dish. The soup's creamy nature and the purple ube create a delightful contrast.
The first time I tried this soup, it reminded me of creamy Western soups like mushroom soup, rather than traditional Vietnamese cuisine. Despite its thickness, it had a light and complementary flavor that paired well with other dishes.
Another example is canh bi do, or pumpkin soup. The vibrant orange hue of the pumpkin entices the senses, while its natural sweetness and earthiness add depth to the soup. The essence of this soup lies in the blend of pumpkin and a flavorful broth made from pork ribs or ground pork.
When I crave a nourishing and flavorful meal with ease, canh bi do is my go-to choice. With minimal preparation, I can enjoy a rich, savory, and satisfying bowl of soup. It allows me to incorporate a balance of vegetables and protein into my meal, keeping things simple in the kitchen.
3. Canh thap cam (Mixed ingredient soup)
Canh thap cam is a versatile soup that lets you get creative with your own unique version. There are no strict rules or limitations, so you can use your favorite veggies and experiment with flavors. While certain ingredients like mushrooms, carrots, or corn are traditionally used, you are encouraged to explore and create your own recipe.
For example, there's a captivating soup called canh bong thap cam (dried pig skin with veggies soup). Originating from the northern region, it combines dried pig skin, tender meat, succulent shrimp, and an assortment of vegetables. It's a dish often enjoyed during special occasions such as Lunar New Year, wedding and death ceremonies, showcasing its aromas and complexity.
The star ingredient in this soup is dried pig skin, which when cooked feels like a tasty sponge. Vegetables like cauliflower, kohlrabi, peas, carrots, onions, and shiitake mushrooms add color, appeal, and a contrast to the richness of the meat. This soup symbolizes good fortune and prosperity, making it a cherished dish during celebrations.
And if you're craving a vegetable-packed soup on the weekend, give canh suon non (ribs and veggies soup) a try. This pork spare rib soup with veggies is not only full of flavor but also easy to prepare, making it a perfect choice for a hassle-free meal.
The ingredients include pork spare ribs, potatoes, carrots, corn, and cauliflower. Slow simmering infuses the broth with a rich umami flavor, complemented by the natural sweetness of the veggies. You can enjoy it as a main dish or as a side dish with steamed rice. And here's a fun twist: try pairing it with macaroni! It’s a favorite childhood dish in Vietnam.
4. Canh chua - Sweet and sour soup
Last but not least, no exploration of Vietnamese canh would be complete without mentioning the beloved sweet and sour soup, canh chua. This soup is a perfect blend of sweet and tangy flavors. It typically includes chunks of pineapple, tamarind, tomatoes which results in that sour flavor. Canh chua offers a combination of sweet, sour, and savory notes, making it an all-time favorite among locals and visitors alike.
While there are many varieties of this soup, there is a dynamic duo that steals the spotlight: canh chua ca in the south and canh suon chua in the north.
In the south, canh chua ca, or sour fish soup, takes center stage. It brings together the tangy punch of tamarind or other souring agents with the delicate flavors of freshwater fish. This ensemble also includes aromatic herbs, tomatoes, bean sprouts, and taro stems, creating a harmony that will make your taste buds do a happy dance.
What makes canh chua ca apart is its flavor fusion. The tangy kick from the souring agents cutting through the richness of the fish. And let's not forget the fresh herbs, filling the soup with their aroma. And if you want to enjoy it like a true local, go ahead and ask for another plate. Take the fish out of the soup, transfer it to that plate, and give it a little fish sauce cover-up. Trust me, the combination of spicy, sweet, and sour will have you devouring that fish.
In the north, we have canh suon chua, where the sour pork ribs steal the show, especially when the summer heat is on. It brings a sourness to the party with dracontomelon and tomatoes, teaming up with flavorful pork ribs. Dracontomelon features a subtle sour that makes it suitable for most people, even those who are not fans of the sour note.
All these ingredients are cooked together in a pot, allowing the flavors to meld and create a harmonious broth.
You can enjoy canh suon chua with steamed rice or go for a noodle adventure with vermicelli. Although it’s a family favorite, you won't often find it in many restaurants. It's like a secret family treasure, but that does not make it any less popular.