Sour fish soup

Sour fish soup

Canh chua cá

South East Asian Food

Sour fish soup is the national dish of south Vietnam and a dish which echoes right across South East Asia. It is family food as familiar to a southern Vietnamese as fish and chips is to a Britisher or lamb chops to an Australian, but no less delicious for all that. In Vietnam taro stalk (đốt bạc há; Colocasia esculenta) is always used in this soup. You can now find this fairly readily in Asian food stores owned by Vietnamese, but stalks of European celery would make an acceptable substitute. Some people also like to add 5 or 6 okra to this soup.


Quantity Ingredient
1 whole round-bodied fish, about 600g, (see Note)
2 garlic cloves, smashed and chopped, (optional)
1-1.5 litres water
3 green tamarind pods or tamarind water, made from a walnut-sized piece ripe tamarind pulp
or 2 slices sour pineapple
1 medium tomato
200g beansprouts
3 taro stalks, about 100 g
or 3 big stalks european celery
3 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
salt, to taste
1 cup mixed green herbs, (see Note)
1 fresh chilli, sliced into rounds


  1. Clean and scale the fish, rub it with garlic, and cut it into steaks about 5 cm wide. Keeping the body steaks aside, put the head and tail in a saucepan, add the water and simmer for 20 minutes or so to make stock. When the water boils, put the green tamarinds if you are using them into the stock and let them soften for 5–10 minutes. Take them out and mash them in a bowl with some stock added to moisten, then strain as much liquid as you want back into the stock, discarding the residue.
  2. Cut the tomato into wedges. Wash the beansprouts. Peel any tough skin off the taro stalks and cut them diagonally into 5 cm lengths. If you are using ripe tamarind pulp, soak it in 100 ml boiling water until it is soft, then squeeze it repeatedly with your fingers and strain it through a coffee strainer, discarding the pulp and reserving the liquid. Alternatively core the pineapple slices and cut them into small wedges.
  3. Strain the stock and discard the solids. Bring back to the boil, add the tomatoes and cook for a minute, then add the pineapple or the tamarind water if you are using them instead of green tamarind pods, the fish sauce, sugar and salt (the broth should be a little sour and sufficiently but not excessively sweet). Add the taro stem, bring the soup back to the boil, put in the fish cutlets and simmer gently until cooked.
  4. Place the beansprouts in the bottom of a serving bowl, add the chunks of fish and sprinkle the herbs over them. Ladle over the broth and the vegetable and serve immediately.
  5. Have a bowl of sliced rounds of fresh chilli and one of fish sauce on the table for diners to add if they wish.
  6. Vietnamese families sometimes create two dishes instead of one here if they start with a substantial fish. They do not rub the fish with the garlic, but cut it into cutlets. Some of the cutlets are put aside. While the stock is cooking 1–2 tablespoons of oil is heated in a pan, the garlic added and then the fish cutlets. The cutlets are fried gently until they are flavoured and very lightly cooked without letting the garlic get too brown when it would become bitter. The fried cutlets are then taken out and kept aside on a plate. When the time comes to add the fish to the soup, the raw cutlets are put in and left to cook, while the fried ones are dipped in at the end only for long enough to heat them, then removed and drained. They are placed on a plate and served as a separate dish with Nuoc Cham dipping sauce.
  7. For vegetarians this soup may be made without the fish but with all the other vegetables. Soya sauce is used to flavour the broth in place of fish sauce.

Whole round-bodied fish

  • e.g. freshwater perch, redfin, trout, pike or saltwater fish such as coral trout, sea perch, whiting

Mixed green herbs as follows:

  • eryngo or long-leaf coriander, sliced (Vietnamese rau ngò gai, Thai phak chi farang; Eryngium foetidum); coriander (cilantro) leaf (Vietnamese rau ngò, Thai phak chi); Asian sweet basil, torn (Vietnamese rau qué, Thai horapha); spring onions (scallions), chopped
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