Canh chua is possibly my favourite soup of all time (big call, I know). Like most Vietnamese recipes, each family has its own version and variation on it. This recipe shares some similarities with my mother’s recipe, but I’ve also put my own little spin on it. My version has intense flavours with a good number of vegetables and garnishes, making it very textural and exciting to eat from start to finish.

Though this takes a couple of hours to cook, I think it’s totally worth it. Another way you can enjoy canh chua is by making a hot pot version (aka steamboat). At home, we’d make the broth first, then serve it in a large pot in the middle of the dining table, set on a portable stove to simmer. You can then dip your own fish and vegetables into the broth to cook, basically customising your own dinner. Like a lot of Vietnamese foods, this communal style of eating is probably my favourite way to eat canh chua. It’s fun, engaging and takes the stress off the host as everyone can contribute to making dinner.

When cooking this recipe, it’s really important that you have all your ingredients prepared beforehand. That is, have your herbs and vegetables picked, washed and cut to the right dimensions after making the stock, before you start the second stage of the cook. Then, when it’s time to put all the ingredients together, it should be a piece of cake.

You can use store-bought chicken stock, but I always prefer to make my own. It’s so easy and the flavour is always better. I like to use a mix of chicken and pork for this stock, as the chicken gives a subtle flavour, and the pork trotters give the soup a beautiful richness that coats the tongue as you eat. It’s a must.

Khanh Nguyen’s canh chua (sweet and sour tamarind soup)
Serves: 4–6
Preparation time: 1 hour
Cooking time: 2 hours and 45 minutes (including 2 hours simmering)

Ingredients:

Stock
1 whole chicken
5 chicken carcasses
5 pork trotters, split lengthways
2 brown onions, roughly chopped
50g katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes)
3 x 10g sheets salted kombu
6L water
2 tbsp Knorr tamarind soup powder
2 tbsp Knorr chicken powder
3 tbsp caster sugar
80g tamarind paste
4 tbsp fish sauce
4 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tsp white peppercorns, lightly toasted in a pan and ground
1 can pineapple chunks in juice

Soup
60ml vegetable oil, plus extra for frying
3cm ginger, finely chopped
2 long red chillies, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 stick lemongrass, white part only, finely chopped
250g Spanish mackerel fillets, cut into 2cm cubes
80g rice flour
1 x 150g elephant’s ear (bạc ha) stem, sliced on the diagonal, in half
100g okra, peeled and sliced on the diagonal to 1.2cm thickness
3 tomatoes, quartered
¼ bunch water spinach/morning glory (rau muong), cut into 5cm lengths
½ bunch snake beans, cut into 5mm rounds

Garnish
½ bunch rice paddy herb (ngo om), finely sliced with the stalks
1 bunch sawtooth coriander (ngo gai), finely sliced
½ bunch Thai basil, leaves picked and finely sliced
60g store-bought fried shallots
100g bean sprouts

Note: elephant’s ear, water spinach, rice paddy herb, sawtooth coriander and Thai basil can be found at Asian grocers and fresh food markets.

Method:
To make the stock, add the whole chicken, chicken carcasses and pork trotters to a large pot with 3L water and bring to the boil. Simmer for 5 minutes, strain off the liquid, then rinse the bones under cold running water to remove all the impurities. This technique is quite common with Vietnamese-style soups – all my aunties would judge how good my soup was based on the clarity of the broth.

Return the bones to the pot and add the onion, katsuobushi, salted kombu and 3L water. Bring to the boil. Add the tamarind seasoning, chicken powder and caster sugar and return to the boil, then turn the heat down to low and simmer for at least 2 hours with the lid slightly ajar. If you have time, you can go up to 4 hours for a richer and fuller-bodied stock.

Strain the liquid through a fine strainer and set aside for later. Discard the solids. At this point, if some of my more judgemental aunties were coming over for dinner, I’d strain the stock through an oil filter to remove as many impurities as possible. I’d also save the soft gelatinous trotters for my uncles to snack on during dinner.

Wipe out the pot and return to the stovetop over medium heat. Add the vegetable oil and heat until lightly smoking, then add the prepared ginger, chilli, garlic and lemongrass. Cook for 5 minutes, until golden brown, stirring constantly for even cooking and caramelisation. It can burn very quickly if you take your eyes off it.

Return the stock to the pot and add the tamarind paste, fish sauce, light soy sauce, white pepper and pineapple chunks and juice. Adjust the seasoning to your desired preference. I like this soup quite sweet and sour, hence the name of this recipe.

In the meantime, dust the Spanish mackerel with the rice flour and deep fry at 180°C for 5 minutes. I love frying my fish before braising, as it creates a beautiful crust which soaks up all the liquid it’s cooked in. Alternatively, you can shallow fry or pan fry.

Once you’re happy with the flavour of the broth, add the mackerel and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the elephant’s ear stem, okra, tomatoes, water spinach, snake beans and simmer for a further 10 minutes, then garnish with fresh bean sprouts, herbs and fried shallots.

Khanh Nguyen is the co-owner and executive chef at Sunda and Aru in Melbourne.

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