Whenever I come home from traveling, I long for nothing more than traditional Vietnamese home-cooked food. And nothing's more traditional than Vietnamese Sweet and Sour Catfish Soup (Canh Chua Cá Trê) and Vietnamese Braised & Caramelized Catfish (Cá Kho). One fish. Two easy dishes. Add steamed white rice and you have a complete Vietnamese home-cooked meal.
Vietnamese Sweet and Sour Catfish Soup (Canh Chua Ca Tre) is one of many traditional Vietnamese soups, but it is this soup that epitomizes Vietnamese home cooking. How? It perfectly balances the delicate combination of sweet, sour and savory. The sweetness comes from sugar. The tartness comes from the tamarind, which gets mellowed out by the sugar. And lastly, the savory is obviously the catfish.
There are many variations of Canh Chua. All include tomatoes, however, others may also include taro stem, mushroom, okra, celery, bean sprouts and/or pineapple.
What makes Canh Chua my all-time favorite soup is what finishes it off. When the soup is ready to serve, it is topped with aromatic Thai Basil leaves or rice paddy herbs and a generous heap of freshly fried garlic. Just imagine the aroma when the soup is being served. It's nothing short of an orgasm for the nose!
In the below recipe, I kept it simple by using tomatoes and bean sprouts. For the protein, I used catfish, but I also love to use salmon when I have it on hand. Happy eating!
Vietnamese Sweet & Sour Catfish Soup (Canh Chua Ca Tre)
1/2 lb catfish (Thoroughly clean and slice into 1-inch steaks)
2 teaspoons fish sauce
8 cups water
5 tablespoons granulated white sugar
2 tablespoons tamarind powder (or 40 grams tamarind pulp)
1 tablespoon chicken stock powder
1 teaspoon salt
4 large tomatoes (about 1 lb; quarter)
2 cups bean sprouts
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic (mince)
8-10 sprigs Thai Basil (remove leaves from stem and cut into thin strips)
1 Thai chili pepper (optional for those who like it spicy)
Marinate catfish with fish sauce at room temperature for at least 15 minutes.
Add water (8 cups) to a medium-sized pot and bring it to a boil.
Add catfish, along with its juices. Cook for 15 minutes on low heat. Use a mesh or small spoon to scoop out any scum that floats to the top.
Add sugar, tamarind powder, chicken stock powder and salt. If you are using tamarind pulp instead of tamarind powder, ladle a cup or so of hot water from the pot into a small bowl. Add the tamarind pulp to the hot water. Smash the pulp with the back of a spoon until it separates from the seeds. Strain the pulp back into the pot, discarding any tamarind seeds that remains.
Add tomatoes and cook for 2 minutes. Turn off heat.
Add the bean sprouts. The residual heat will cook the bean sprouts.
In a small sauce pan, heat up the vegetable oil high and fry the garlic until golden brown. Transfer fried garlic and oil to the pot.
Top with basil and chili pepper.
Serve with Vietnamese Caramelized Clay Pot Cat Fish (Cá Kho Tộ) and steamed white rice for a complete meal.