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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.