This is a long overdue article since I heard of Romanian sour soup. I was amazed that although the two countries are thousand miles from each other and have a whole lot of Eastern/Western differences, we do like the same thing: sour soup. I hope Anuca will reveal her delicious Romanian recipe one day, in the meantime let’s discover the Vietnamese version of sour soup.
Sour soup in Vietnam is a particular soup made with fish and herbs and a sour agent, be it herb, fruit or legume. Sour soup’s ingredients vary from North to South however: from the amount of the ingredients to the herbs and the sour agent, they are as different as day and night. For eighteen years I only knew of Southern sour soup, I thought it’s universal sour soup, in Vietnam that is. And then college years brought with them so many culture discoveries, I got to taste Northern sour soup for the first time and it is one of a kind.
The Northern version is a lot more simple in terms of ingredients. It consists of fish, tomatoes, dill and sour fruit called “tai chua”. This sour fruit is usually cut and dried before cooking, and beware, its sour taste is so intense that if you take a bite out of it, you’ll find yourself making weird noises and an endless grimace worthy of Jim Carrey's expression.
The Southern version is made with fish, tomatoes, pineapple, elephant ear stem, mung bean sprouts, a bit of banana blossom, okra, spring onion, rice paddy herb and young fresh tamarinds.
Comparing the two versions, I’d say the Northern version is more delicate in taste since it has few ingredients, you can’t hide the imperfection of your dish. The Southern version is a concert of flavors which is cheerful in colors and has the smells of warm weather. Both versions smell very different. The purpose of dill in Northern version is to disguise the natural smell of fish. As for Southern version, the smell of herbs are so far-reaching, even your neighbors will feel like dying for a taste. Yes yes let’s make your neighbors’s mouths, or at the very least your whole household’s, water today with this Southern sour soup.
Before we start, there are two things that we need to keep in mind about this dish. The specialty of the Southern sour soup does not lie in the fish or the vegetables, it’s all about the sour taste and the herbs.
The spring onion, rice paddy herb and tamarind when cooked release a fragrance so unlike that of any other Vietnamese dish. In fact you can always tell this dish apart just by smell only. Just give this dish a try if only to discover rice paddy herb. This herb originates from Southeast Asia. It tastes a bit spicy, a bit bitter if you eat it raw, smells fresh and the best part of it is it has anti-inflammatory effect.
The sour taste from fresh young tamarind is delicate with a barely noticeable smell. Sour soup is great for dinner because there’s nothing like a sour dish to make you focus after a tiring day and make your stomach ask for more. And because this dish is so healthy, you won’t even need to watch your weight eating it. To make this dish, it’s perfect if you can find fresh young tamarind. I can’t find young tamarind in France, only the tamarind paste made from ripe tamarind so I will make this recipe with it. The sourness of tamarind paste is more noticeable than fresh young tamarind, the color of it will make your broth turn a bit brownish in color but it all comes down to the taste. And your sour dish will taste as good as the original one. So let’s make it!
- 400 gr fish of your choice (I use basa fish today)
- 1,5l of water
- 2 average tomatoes
- 1 piece of pineapple of 100 gr
- 2 average elephant ear stems
- 200 gr mung bean sprouts
- 100 gr okras
- 50 gr rice paddy herb
- 50 gr spring onion
- 30 gr tamarind paste
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1 shallot
- 1 red chili (optional)
- Fish sauce, salt, sugar, black pepper, vegetable oil
This dish takes no time at all to cook, only 25 minutes at most. First peel and mince the garlic and shallot then divide them in two parts. Use one part of it to marinate the fish with black pepper and 2 tablespoons of fish sauce. Let it sit while we prepare the rest of the ingredients and prepare the broth.
Cut the tomatoes into wedges.
Peel the elephant ear stems and cut diagonally into pieces of about 1 inch.
Do the same for the pineapple.
Remove the two ends of the okra and cut diagonally into thin pieces (thinner than elephant ear stem pieces).
Chop the rice paddy herb and spring onion finely as this is for garnish purpose.
Then comes my Center Vietnamese signature: red chili always goes hand in hand with fish. Red chili is spicier in soup than in sauce so proceed with care. If you use red chili like me, cut it into slices.
Time to make the broth! First we need to sautée the garlic and shallot to extract their fragrance. Now on medium heat, add a dash of vegetable oil in your soup pot and sautée the rest of the minced garlic and shallot. This will take about 1 minute or less depend of the thickness of your pot. When those pieces release their fragrance, add the tomatoes and pineapple. Let it sautée for 2 minutes then add the water and bring to a boil on high heat. At this stage you can add salt and fish sauce, half a teaspoon for salt and 3 tablespoons for fish sauce. They will help the water boil faster and serve as a base for our soup since we will add tamarind paste and sugar later.
When the water is boiling, take a small amount of this water and put it in a bowl along with tamarind paste. We need the paste to soften so that we can separate the tamarind meat from the seeds. This takes about 3 minutes, use a spoon to crush and dissolve the meat until all big chunks left are the seeds.
Back to the boiling pot, add the marinated fish in and let it cook for 5 minutes or until the fish is cooked. Don’t lower the heat when you cook the fish, the high heat ensures that that the smell of fish will be reduced. After 5 minutes, take the fish out. This step is to preserve the shape of the fish. If we let it in the pot to cook with other ingredients, the fish will become overcooked and eventually break from its original shape. Set the fish aside.
The soup pot by now is still boiling. Pour the bowl of tamarind water that we extracted earlier into the pot using a food filter to remove all the seeds. Add 1 teaspoon of sugar in the soup and stir.
Now add the elephant ear stems, okras and mung bean sprouts in the pot. This is when you should taste the soup and add fish sauce or salt or even more sugar if you like. Remember to never add in fish sauce when the water is boiling or the fish sauce smell will overwhelm the dish.
When the soup boils again, add the fish back to the pot along with chopped spring onion and rice paddy herb. Let it boil again for 3 minutes then take off the heat. And it’s done!
Serve the sour soup in a big bowl to eat with rice, the fish should be served in a separate plate with raw fish sauce and chili slices. No vegetable side dish should be served with this whole pot meal. Everything you need is in that flavorful, delicate bowl of soup.
A melting pot experience, in more than one way. Welcome to our Epicurean adventure!