Canh Chua Vietnamese Sour Tamarind Soup and Life in the Mekong Delta

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From Tebetian highlands to the lowlands of southwest Vietnam, the Mekong river and it’s thousands of tributaries meanders it’s way across 39,000 square km in Vietnam known as the Mekong Delta or miền tây (western region) , encompassing the lands immediately west of Saigon to the very southern tip, Cà Mau.

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Dubbed as a biologic treasure trove, the waters of Mekong river is a way of life for over 17 million inhabitants. It’s waters and rich soil help to produce half of the countries rice crop each year as well as an abundance of fruits. It’s also home to large aquacultural industry raising catfish, basa, and shrimp.

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Life here revolves around the river–owning a boat is just as important as a scooter, if not more, as it means you can ferry your crops to the market to sell to earn a living. The Cái Răng market in Cần Thơ, is one of the largest floating markets in the region. Mainly a wholesale market for fruits and vegetables, this normal way of life has become a must see destination for anyone visiting this area.

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Each morning at sunrise, the market is teaming with activity. Hundreds of large wholesale boats from all over delta converge and drop anchor in the market, hanging their crops on bamboo poles to signal what’s in season and for sale.  We’re not sure if there’s any order to it all–bananas on one end or dragon fruit on the other, but the the large boats create lanes, or market aisles if you will, for smaller retail boats (and tourists boats) to weave through. Instead of aisle numbers and shopping carts, check the bamboo poles weave your boat to your vendor, place your order and soon bundles of fruit and vegetables are tossed onto your boat. It’s an extraordinary way of doing business that you’ll ever experience.

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If you see household items on the boat such as cloths or pots and pans, or even pets on boat it doesn’t mean it’s for sale. Some families actually call the boats home!

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As with markets on land, there’s no shortage of food options to satisfy all the hungry vendors and visitors. You can flag down floating cafes to indulge your cafe sua da morning fix as well as banh mi boats to satisfy your breakfast cravings.

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Oh, but you’ll rather have a bowl of hủ tiếu instead? No problem! There’s a boat for that too. Just good luck trying to eat a bowl of noodles in a floating boat.  After you manage that, the noodle lady will navigate around find you and retrieve her bowl and chopsticks. The ingenuity and perseverance of these people are simply amazing.

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But the Mekong Delta isn’t known for hủ tiếu or even pho for that matter. It’s known for dishes that uses the abundant seafood and vegetables from the region such as hot pots called lẫu mắm made from salted fish as well as one of our favorite soups, canh chua. We adore canh chua because the contrasting flavors of sour, sweet, and savory and we also love the contrasting textures of all the different vegetables. Literally translated as sour soup, canh chua combines all the wonderful abundance of this region, incorporating seafood (such catfish, snakehead, eel, shrimp among others) along with colorful medley of tamarind, pineapple, tomatoes, okra, elephant ears, bean sprouts and a variety of herbs such as lemony ngo om. Enjoy canh chua with some steamed jasmine rice as part of a traditional Vietnamese meal or alone with some rice vermicelli noodles.

Everytime we make this dish, we’ll always remember the floating fruit vendors and  life on the Mekong.  If you’re visiting, hire a private small private boat to visit the market early around sunrise or slightly after when it’s most busy.

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Canh Chua Sour Tamarind Soup with Prawns

Yield: 4 servings

We love using prawns for this dish but you can use your favorite seafood. Any firm white fish steaks would work well.

This recipe requires preparing tamarind pulp. It's best to use wet seedless tamarind typically sold in 14 oz blocks instead of juice or concentrates, although you certainly could if pressed for time. For why and how to prepare the pulp, see this link. by Leela of shesimmers.com

Ingredients:

6 cups of water or fish stock
1/2 lb large prawns, cleaned
1 cup tamarind pulp puree
1/2 sweet pineapple, peeled, sliced into bite-sized pieces
2 tomatos, cut in wedges
2 tbs sugar, plus additional to taste
1 tbs koshar salt, plus additonal to taste
1 tbs fish sauce
1-2 elephant ear stems, peeled and sliced on diagonal 1/2in thick
1 cup okra, sliced diagonal
2 red chilli, sliced (optional)
1/2 cup of bean sprouts
10 springs of rice paddy herb, roughly chopped
fried garlic

Directions:

Combine the tamarind pulp in equal amout (i.e 14 oz block, 14 fl oz water, roughly 1 cup) of hot water in a large bowl and soak for 15 minutes. Work the pulp with your hands until dissolved, squeezing out the puree and then tossing away the membranes. You're left with just the thick brown pulp puree. You can also strain the pulp through a fine sieve instead of using your hands.

In large pot bring water to boil and then add prawns, tamarind pulp puree, tomatoes, pineapple, okra, fish sauce, salt and sugar and bring back to boil.

When prawns are pink and tomatoes are just tender, add bean sprouts and elephant ear stems and season with additional salt or fish salt and sugar to taste. It should be sweet, sour, and savory.

Remove from heat and transfer to serving bowl. Finish with rice patty herb, fried garlic and optional chili.

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21 Responses to “Canh Chua Vietnamese Sour Tamarind Soup and Life in the Mekong Delta”

  1. 1

    Stephanie — August 27, 2012 @ 8:37 am

    Thanks so much for sharing. I’ve yet to do business while on a boat!

  2. 2

    LinhNguyen — August 27, 2012 @ 9:19 am

    Love the pics, supporting text and recipe. You guys are awesome!

    • The Ravenous Couple replied: — August 27th, 2012 @ 11:02 am

      thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  3. 3

    Candice — August 28, 2012 @ 7:51 am

    Yum! I love this soup. Is it the same as the sour and spicy catfish soup? I live in the States. Where can I purchase the rice paddy herb?

    Thanks.

    • The Ravenous Couple replied: — August 28th, 2012 @ 8:32 am

      yes, it’s the same, you can use catfish steaks or other fish in this soup. rice paddy herbs are hard to find but check your local asian market

  4. 4

    Candice — August 28, 2012 @ 9:33 am

    Hi Ravenous Couple,

    Thank you. =)

  5. 5

    Cri cri — August 31, 2012 @ 7:48 am

    This bowl of canh chua looks delicious and your pictures are amazing.

  6. 6

    Claire — September 3, 2012 @ 2:34 pm

    I just stumbled upon your website and the stories and food look wonderfully beautiful. Kudos to you both.

  7. 7

    Jonathan — September 4, 2012 @ 4:18 pm

    My favorite variation of this dish is using chicken and rau muon. I make it quite often paired with ca kho to using catfish.

  8. 8

    Anny — September 6, 2012 @ 8:27 pm

    Is it okay to use the tamarind powder instead? Also, should I use homeade “fried garlic” or the store bought one?

    • The Ravenous Couple replied: — September 6th, 2012 @ 11:36 pm

      yes, you can, but if you look the ingredients in the powder…very little of it is tamarind..so for the healthiest and least processed way, use the pulp or concentrate. you can use homemade or store bought garlic

  9. 9

    Wizzy — September 15, 2012 @ 7:25 pm

    Wow, I feel transported through these photos. It’s like I am actually there. So very beautiful. So now all that is left to complete the experience is to go make the soup:-)

  10. 10

    Sue — April 16, 2013 @ 8:56 pm

    We are just back from Vietnam. So glad to find your web page and recipes! Planning on caramel fish in a clay pot (our favorite from Hoi Ahn and Tamarind prawn soup ( a favorite from Can Tho) for starters! Then I’ll try some more!

  11. 11

    Ritchie — June 16, 2013 @ 4:58 am

    Love your website and thanks for the time and thought you have put in each blog. Really love the beautiful pictures you have uploaded. There is so much history and love going on this site. Thanks a million.

  12. 12

    Thien — August 15, 2013 @ 11:23 am

    The pictures are so wonderful! This is my favorite Vietnamese dish of all time. Thanks for posting the recipe. :)

  13. 13

    Anna — February 8, 2014 @ 12:18 pm

    When I first started making this, I thought I had done something wrong.. It looked so strange and not at all like the canh chua that I was used to. But then… bam! Somehow, someway, it turned out EXACTLY like how my mom had always made it for me. My mom passed away last summer due to liver disease. She would always make this as a treat for me when I came home from college, since she knew it was my *favorite* food. However, I was always too stubborn and lazy to watch and learn from her when she was cooking. Now, it’s too late and I had thought all was lost… No more delicious home-cooked Vietnamese meals for my brother and I… Until I stumbled upon your website. Your recipies are simple, easy to follow (for newbies such as myself), and every time I’ve tried something it’s turned out great! But this canh chua was even more than that- it was perfect. Definitely takes me back to the good ol’ times with my mom. I think she would’ve been proud. Anyways, I guess what I’m trying to say is thank you!

  14. 14

    Tropical | Athens Cooking Club — February 8, 2014 @ 4:00 pm

    […] Vietnamese sour tamarind soup! This had jumbo shrimp and catfish in it and a delightful sweet-sour flavor. There’s […]

  15. 15

    Jean — February 13, 2014 @ 8:19 pm

    I have tamarind paste. How much would I use? I’ve had celery used in the soups I have bought locally at Vietnamese restaurants! Also, love the photos and descriptions. Thank you so much for the recipe.

    • The Ravenous Couple replied: — February 14th, 2014 @ 11:28 am

      i would disolve the paste in small amt of hot water 1:1 ratio and add that to the soup

  16. 16

    Tropical | My Website — February 14, 2014 @ 10:15 am

    […] Vietnamese sour tamarind soup! This had jumbo shrimp and catfish in it and a delightful sweet-sour flavor. There’s […]

  17. 17

    Lisa — March 25, 2014 @ 10:45 am

    Your recipe calls for 1 cup of tamarind pulp, is that correct? It only seemed too much to me when other recipes calls for a fraction of that amount. I just want to make sure that’s all.

    Thank you!

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