It’s no secret that I love my soup recipes. And that’s probably because in Vietnamese culture, we have either soups or vermicelli bowls for the most part. It’s all I grew up eating, and I wasn’t mad about it. One soup that’s always been a favorite of mine is canh chua which is our version of sweet and sour soup. It is made with pork, catfish, and a load of traditional Vietnamese vegetables. Not only is it healthy, but it’s easy to make and amazingly good, which makes it the perfect soup to have during the holidays.
What is canh chua?
Canh chua, also known as Vietnamese sweet & sour soup, comes from the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam. It includes a tamarind broth filled with fish (typically catfish) from the delta, pineapple, tomatoes, elephant ear stalks, and bean sprouts. And it is usually served with a side of white rice and Ca Kho To. Like with many Vietnamese dishes, there are a ton of different interpretations, and every family has their own version.
One of the challenges of making this dish in Western countries is access to ingredients. Many families in these countries have had to adapt their recipes to utilize the ingredient available to them. For example, my family makes both a modern and traditional version. Earlier this year, I posted a modern version of this recipe utilizing ingredients like salmon, okra, and celery. This recipe is the traditional version and the one I grew up eating the most. It has stuff like catfish, elephant ear stalk, and rice paddy herb. All these ingredients are pretty hard to find even in big cities like LA, so I provided substitutions in the next section.
Ingredients, Substitutions & Adjustments
- Pork – The pork is the base of the broth and used only for flavor. You can use any cut of pork you want, but I would recommend using a cut with some bone on it. Bones create the richest, most flavorful broths. Some cuts I recommend are bone in pork chops or pork ribs.
- Onion – Adds sweetness to the soup.
- Tamarind – This is the key ingredient in canh chua and what makes it sweet and sour. Fresh tamarind comes in pods that look similar to snap peas. The fruit is a brown pulp with seeds inside. You can use fresh tamarind or half of the tamarind soup mix.
- Salt for seasoning
- Pineapple – Adds sweetness to the soup. You can use either 1 pineapple or 1 can (20 oz) of pineapple.
- Ginger – Helps to cover the fishy flavor of the catfish.
- Catfish – Use any cut of catfish for this recipe. I prefer steak cut catfish, but you can only find that in speciality markets. If you can’t find catfish in general, I would substitute with salmon. Since salmon has more of a fishy flavor than catfish, I would dunk it in boiling water before adding it to the soup.
- Elephant ear stalk (Bac Ha) – This is a pretty traditional Vietnamese vegetable that adds texture to the soup. If you can’t find it, I would recommend substituting with celery. Make sure to peel the skin off the vegetable before cutting it into chunks.
- Tomatoes – Use any kind of tomatoes you want. I personally prefer Roma tomatoes.
- Bean sprouts – Adds texture to the soup. If you can’t find bean sprouts, I would leave it out.
- Granulated sugar – Adds sweetness to the soup.
- Rice paddy herb (Ngo Om) – This is a Vietnamese herb that has a citrusy flavor. A good substitute for this is a pinch of cumin or lemon basil.
Using and understanding tamarind
Tamarind is probably the most important ingredient in canh chua because it’s what gives the soup its signature sweet and sour flavor. Like I mentioned above, tamarind comes in pods that look similar to snap peas. Inside the pod is the brown pulp and the seeds. Sometimes, it comes in a block of dried brown pulp which is what you see pictured above. For this recipe, it’s important the seeds and pulp don’t get into the soup because they will make it cloudy. So to avoid this, you have to boil the pulp and strain it through a fine mesh sieve before adding it to the soup.
Making my canh chua
First clean your pork. Add pork to a soup pot. Cover with water until it just covers the pork. Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Take out the pork and then throw away the water. This process cleans the pork. Rinse the pot and add the pork back. Cover the pork with fresh water until it just covers the meat. Bring to a boil.
Next, add the onion and simmer for 1.5 hours. Make sure to check every 30 minutes for impurities. Scoop away any you see. While the soup is simmering, combine 1 cup of water and the tamarind in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil and let it simmer until the tamarind dissolves. You can help speed up the process by using the back of a spoon to crush the tamarind. Pour the tamarind through a fine mesh sieve into a small bowl. Set aside.
After simmering the soup for 1.5 hours, add the pineapple to the soup. Simmer for another 20 minutes. Next, put the catfish in and simmer for another 10 minutes until it is cooked through. Lastly, add the vegetables and tamarind. Bring the soup to a boil and serve.
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Vietnamese Sweet & Sour Soup (Canh Chua)
- 1 ½ lb pork
- 1 yellow onion
- 1 ½ oz fresh tamarind
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 can pineapple 20 oz
- 1 piece ginger 1 inch long
- 1 ½ lb catfish cut into 1 inch pieces
- 10 oz elephant ear stem cut into chunks
- 3 tomatoes quartered
- 12 oz bean sprouts
- 1 tsp granulated sugar
- 1 oz rice paddy herb
- Add pork to a large soup pot. Cover with water until it just covers the pork. Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Take out the pork and then throw away the water. This process cleans the pork. Rinse the pot and add the pork back. Cover the pork with fresh water until it just covers the meat. Bring to a boil.
- Add the onion and simmer for 1.5 hours. Make sure to check every 30 minutes for impurities. Scoop away any you see.
- While the soup is simmering, combine 1 cup of water and tamarind in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil and let it simmer until the tamarind dissolves.You can help speed up the process by using the back of a spoon to crush the tamarind. Pour the tamarind through a fine mesh sieve into a small bowl. Set aside.
- After simmering the soup for 1.5 hours, add the pineapple and ginger to the soup. Simmer for another 20 minutes.
- Put the catfish in and simmer for another 10 minutes until it is cooked through.
- Lastly, add the vegetables and tamarind from step 3. Bring the soup to a boil and serve with a side of white rice. Make sure to taste the soup for seasoning and add more salt if it tastes bland.
- You can use any cut of pork you want for this recipe. I would recommend using cuts of pork with bones like bone in pork chops or pork ribs.
- If you can't find fresh tamarind, I would use half a package of tamarind soup mix.
- If you have leftover soup, make sure to store the fish separately from the soup. If you leave the fish in the soup overnight, it will become mushy.
- For an extra hit of umami flavor, serve the soup with a little bit of fish sauce on the side. You can dip the catfish in the fish sauce.