Thursday, September 24, 2009

Canh: Soup's On!

A typical home-cooked Vietnamese meal consists of white rice, a meat dish, a vegetable dish, and soup, known in Vietnamese as canh. All dishes are placed in the middle of the table; diners grab tiny morsels and place them into their individual bowls. Rice is, of course, the staple, as it is in all of Asia, and the other staple is canh.

While some soups are complex and may form the centerpiece of the meal, canh is more often just a light, simple broth infused with some kind of herb or vegetable. This kind of canh is eaten at the end of the meal, poured into a bowl with rice, and used to fill up the belly after you've had enough of the main courses. The stock for this type of canh often comes from the water that is used to boil the main meat or vegetable; the Vietnamese are loath to let anything edible go to waste. At restaurants, a light canh may be served alongside a noodle or rice dish, as a palette cleanser and extra filler.

More complex soups can include clams, shrimp, chicken, fish, and various vegetables, and form the centerpiece of a meal. One famous example of this kind of canh, originally from the south but found all over Vietnam, is canh chua. Canh chua ("sour soup") is made with pineapples, tomatoes, onions, and tamarind or some other sour fruit, and may include fish, pork, or shrimp, and various herbs (there seem to be as many canh chua recipes as there are cooks). When a canh such as this is served at table, the meat or vegetable may be omitted.

At least in the north, there is a seasonal element to canh; it tends to be a bigger part of the meal in summer, when the hot, muggy nights militate against overeating. A light canh helps to satiate hunger without overfilling the belly, and makes it easier to eat rice. An example of a light summer canh is canh mồng tơi cua, which is made from river crab and a leafy green vegetable called mồng tơi (Latin: Basella alba; English: Malabar spinach).

The crab meat, which is bought from the market in 100 gram parcels and has the consistency of mud, is broken up into a liter or water, and allowed to simmer. A small package of crab eggs is usually included; these are added to the stock once the water has boiled, along with a little gia vị (prepackaged spice mix sold in all Vietnamese food stores). The mồng tơi is chiffonaded, tossed into the stock, and briefly boiled, before the soup is taken off the stove and cooled before serving. To really make this dish pop, serve it with Cà muối, a small eggplant varietal that is salted and pickled and becomes totally addictive if you eat it regularly. The picture at the top of this post shows the canh top right, alongside a lovely perch wrapped in lemongrass.

A more robust canh is the canh ngao, or clam soup. This dish – made from clams, dill (thì là), Vietnamese cilantro (rau răm), a little-known herb called mùi tàu (Latin: Eryngium foetidum; English: culantro), scallions, tomatoes, and gia vị – is weighty enough to hold its own against any meat dish, and can easily form a central part of a meal.

The recipe, again, is very simple: boil the clams until they open. Shell the clams and decant the water to remove the grit, and return the broth to the stove. Return the clams to the broth, and add all the chopped veggies except the rau răm and scallions. Bring to a boil, add the scallions and rau răm, and serve. That's it! It sounds simple, but the picture below hopefully attests to the richness of this meal.
Good Vietnamese food shows a great appreciation for the natural taste of fresh ingredients. Where the French delight in the mysterious alchemy of a sauce, Vietnamese chefs are just as likely to offer a simple broth, infused with little more than the taste of a fresh herb. This is not to say that Vietnamese cuisine does not produce complex creations, but the culinary philosophy seems to be: the simpler, the better. Nowhere is this philosophy better demonstrated than in the Vietnamese approach to soup, where the bountiful riches of the garden are enjoyed.


  1. Hal, Vietnamese cilantro is called "rau ngò", or just "ngò" in the South. "Rau răm" is yet another herb, at least for the Southerners.

  2. Hey, thanks for the comment. It seems that every mention of VN herbs stirs up some controversy! But unlike the rau thơm controversy, which has yet to be settled, this time I'm SURE of the English name! Rau răm is DEFINITELY called Vietnamese cilantro in English. Rau ngò is just plain old cilantro, the kind we find everywhere in the Americas. And yes, they are different herbs.

    Here's a good web reference:

    What is amazing to me, however, are the different names people use for the same herbs, not only between southerners and northerners, but sometimes between two people from the same region! The world of VN herbs is mysterious indeed...

  3. Thanks for you posts. Reading them hightens my anticipation for my own trip to Vietnam.

  4. cilantro is rau mu`i :D

  5. in canh ngao, you use rau da(m. Not sure what it is in English... cilantro (rau mui, as I said above) is one of the kinds they put in Pho besides green onion. Actually in Pho, they also put rau tho*m instead of rau mui, depending on the season hehe