Vietnamese fish soup with bite

This is no bland fish soup.

It comes tangy, spicy and full of flavour.

Following in the tradition of South-east Asian soups such as the Thai tom yam, it is sour with tamarind, sweet with pineapple, fragrant with herbs and powerful with chilli.

But it is Vietnamese.

Almost overshadowed by that other Vietnamese soup called phở, made with noodles and usually beef, canh chua cá (Vietnamese sour fish soup) is equally tasty and easier to turn out.

It is part of my Friday fish repertoire (I keep to the Catholic tradition of eating fish on Fridays).

While it is generally cooked with fish, you could easily make it with chicken or vegetables.

However way you like it, it is a healthy soup for it is cooked sans oil and with tomato which contains cancer-fighting lycopene, pineapple which contains cholesterol-lowering fibre, and king oyster mushrooms.

This last ingredient is interesting.

I chose it for its firm meaty bite, almost like meat.

But that is not all.

This largest type of mushroom contains a rich supply of antioxidants and a number of essential minerals such as phosphorous, potassium, calcium and iron.

In the traditional version, sliced bac ha or the stem of the elephant ears yam plant, alocasia odora, is added.

While I do have a similar plant growing in the garden, I am not sure that mine is the right variety.

It might cause stomach irritation otherwise, so I decided to leave it out.

You can substitute this with sliced celery stalks, which has the same spongy texture.

Indeed, you could add a plethora of vegetables such as ladies’ fingers, bean sprouts and squashes to the pot, but I wanted a selection of seafood instead.

Traditionally, only fish – either fish head or the whole fish – is used.

I used a salmon’s head, as it is easily available, and a couple of slices of toman.

This is the snakehead possessing sweet flesh that is used in the Cantonese fish-head beehoon soup and the fish slices are conveniently boneless.

Whole prawns and sliced squid make up the rest of the ingredients, lending even more sweetness and nutrition to the pot.

Yes, these are high in cholesterol, but they are also low in saturated fat.

And nutritionists now say that saturated fat is probably more important than dietary cholesterol in raising cholesterol levels in the body.

Moderation is the key, I guess.

Strictly, a healthy adult is allowed 300mg of cholesterol a day while heart patients should consume less than 200mg.

An individual serving of squid has 198mg of cholesterol, but I think that one prawn and a couple of slices of squid, which is what I would eat, would not be too bad in the cholesterol stakes.

Just remember to serve with this dish, rice (brown, please), which is a traditional complement, and a plate of stir-fried greens to make the meal not just full of flavour, but nutritious too.


Canh chua cá (Vietnamese sour fish soup)

(Serves four to six)


5 cups water or stock

2 tbs brown sugar

1/4 cup fish sauce

2 tbs tamarind paste, seeds and pulp removed, and made into a thick puree with a little water

2 stalks lemongrass, outer fibrous leaves removed, cut into short lengths

2 red chilli padi, whole or slit for more spiciness

6 king oyster mushrooms, sliced thickly

3-4 tomatoes, cut into wedges

1 piece of pineapple, sliced

1 salmon’s head (optional), cut into pieces

Two toman steaks, cut into slices

4-6 prawns, left whole

2 squids, cleaned and sliced into thick rings

Fresh basil, mint and coriander leaves


Place water or stock in a pot.

Add sugar, fish sauce and tamarind puree.

Bring the mixture to the boil, then add lemongrass stalks, red chillies, mushrooms, tomatoes and pineapple.

Bring the mixture back to the boil and then add the fish head, if using.

When the mixture boils again, add the fish, prawns and squid.

When the mixture boils again, taste it and adjust the seasoning, if needed.

Do not overcook.

Garnish with fresh herbs and serve immediately with brown rice.


Source: TST 5.9.2012


2 thoughts on “Vietnamese fish soup with bite

    • The giant snakehead or giant mudfish (Channa micropeltes) is the largest in the family Channidae, capable of growing to over 1 meter in length (3.3 feet) and a weight of over 20 kilograms (44 pounds). It is widely distributed in the freshwater of South East Asia and some regions of India. Other names include red snakehead, redline snakehead, Malabar snakehead, and Ikan toman (where ikan is “fish” in both Indonesian and Malay). The giant snakehead is known in Thai language as Pla Chado (Thai: ปลาชะโด). Source:

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