Vietnamese sweet and sour soup (canh chua) is an example of everything that is great about Vietnamese home cooking. It uses a variety of fresh vegetables and herbs to produce a soup of contrasting yet complementary textures and flavors.
Canh chua is a traditional Vietnamese home cooked soup that perfectly encompasses the delicate balance of sweet, sour, salty and spicy, all in one bowl. You can have this soup on its own to warm you up on a chilly day or have it with steamed rice and other side dishes for a heartier meal.
There are many types of canh chua with different stock bases and assorted vegetables. For this recipe, I’m making canh chua with chicken stock, large tiger shrimp, pineapples, tomatoes and okra.
Since shrimps are added towards the end to prevent overcooking, they don’t provide much richness to the stock. Therefore, I like to use chicken stock to give the soup more body and flavor. In the recipe below, I simply used store-bought Swanson chicken broth. For the shrimp, I like mine whole with shell, head and tail on. Leaving the shrimp whole provides more flavor to the soup. The head fat also gives the soup a beautiful orange color. However, if you are not feeling whole shrimp and having food look back at you, prep it however you like.
The most important ingredient of any canh chua recipe is tamarind pulp. It provides tartness to the soup that’s more fruity and complex than other souring agents like lime, lemon or vinegar. Get your hands on tamarind pulp for the best flavor. Of course, you can use tamarind powder as a substitute if fresh pulp isn’t available.
The other important ingredient to the soup is sugar. Sugar is used to balance the tartness of the tamarind. The pineapple provides a subtle sweetness but that few spoonfuls of sugar are absolutely necessary to canh chua.
Of course, canh chua is not complete without the aromatic fried garlic and Vietnamese herbs that top the soup. There are three main Vietnamese herbs used to garnish canh chua. Rice paddy herb (rau om), culantro (ngo gai) and Thai basil (rau que). Thai Basil is the easiest to find. It’s a lot more aromatic than regular basil. Culantro and rice paddy herbs are a lot harder to find unless you have a Vietnamese grocery store near you. They are lot more fragrant and are my go-to choice for all my canh chua recipes.
For canh chua recipes, avoid overcooking the vegetables. Vegetables are added towards the end of cooking to prevent it from turning into mush. However, vegetables just sitting in the soup will also go limp and dull. I’d recommend if you are not serving right away, make the stock and season it to your liking. Leave the vegetables out of the stock until ready to serve. Limped overcooked vegetables in canh chua really ruin the magic of the soup and simply look sad.
Vietnamese Sweet & Sour Shrimp Soup with Pineapple
- 10 extra large whole shrimp (about 3/4 lbs)
- 3 teaspoons salt (divided)
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 8 garlic cloves (slice into chips)
- 2 32-oz Swanson chicken broth
- 50 grams tamarind pulp
- 3 teaspoons fish sauce
- 6 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1/2 lb okra (halved at a diagonal)
- 1/2 lb pineapple (slice into small chunks)
- 2 tomatoes (about 3/4 lbs)
- 1 small bunch rice paddy herbs (about 60 grams; roughly chop; can substitute with Thai Basil or Culantro)
- 1 Thai chili peppers (optional)
- Devein the shrimp without peeling by using a toothpick inserted underneath vein and simply pull up to remove. Wash shrimp with salt (1 teaspoon). Rinse and drain dry. Set aside.
- In a medium-size pot, add vegetable oil and garlic (add to cold oil). Heat on medium low. Fry garlic until golden brown. Remove half of garlic and set aside. To the pot, add chicken stock and turn up heat to medium-high.
- Add tamarind pulp to a mesh strainer and lower it into the stock pot. Use a spoon to help dissolve pulp. Discard remains.
- Season stock with remaining salt (2 teaspoons), fish sauce and sugar to your liking.
- Add shrimp. When shrimp start to turn color, add okra and pineapple. Cook for 1-2 minutes. Lastly, add tomatoes and immediately turn off heat.
- Garnish soup with fried garlic from earlier, rice paddy herbs, and Thai chili peppers