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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Canh Chua Ca (Vietnamese Sour Fish Soup)

Updated from the archives September 25, 2009:

After a recent trip home, my mom sent along an entire steelhead salmon. I chopped off the head and tail and decided to update the photos from this old recipe. Original post below the picture.

Canh Chua Ca (Vietnamese Sour Fish Soup) 1

As I promised in my previous post, here's my recipe for canh chua ca (Vietnamese sour fish soup). Canh chua ca can be made with fish heads, or whole fish, supplemented by lots of veggies. You can eat it as is, or spooned over rice. It's a good way to use up every part of the fish. It's especially good with large fish heads such as tuna or salmon or sturgeon. If you're cooking it with the whole fish, often the fillet portions will be scooped out and placed on a dish of fish sauce and chili peppers so you can enjoy the meat alone with rice or wrapped up in banh trang (Vietnamese rice paper). The veggies and soup broth are often spooned over rice too.

The sour part of the canh chua comes from tamarind, and is offset by the sweetness of pineapples. There aren't any hard or fast rules, it's simply fish soup with veggies. This is just how I make mine.

The plant you see below is the aforementioned bac ha. Although it may resemble elephant ears, make sure you've got the alocasia odora variety or else it'll irritate your bowels.

Canh Chua Ca (Vietnamese Sour Fish Soup) 2

I peeled the thin outer layer and sliced them on the diagonal. You can see the spongy stalks. That's what helps soak up all the flavors when you add bac ha to whatever you're cooking. You can find bac ha at most Asian grocery stores. If you can't find it, you can substitute with celery stalks but it won't be quite the same.

Canh Chua Ca (Vietnamese Sour Fish Soup) 3

You'll also need pineapple, beansprouts, shallots, garlic, tamarind, tomatoes, okra, lemongrass, and bac ha.

And let's not forget the most important ingredient...

Canh Chua Ca (Vietnamese Sour Fish Soup) 4

Fish heads fish heads,
Roly poly fish heads,
Fish heads fish heads,
Eat them up yum

I took a fish head,
Out to see a movie,
Didn't have to pay
To get it in

Fish heads fish heads,
Roly poly fish heads,
Fish heads fish heads,
Eat them up yum

Sorry, I couldn't resist. You can listen to the rest of the Dr. Demento song and watch the video on YouTube. I don't know what's up with me and childhood songs lately. Those were the only lyrics I remembered of this song from 6th-grade outdoor school at Trout Creek. I always thought it was a children's song. And the way it's sung on the video is totally not how I was taught. How disconcerting.

But anyway, onto the recipe.

Canh Chua Ca (Vietnamese Sour Fish Soup) 5

Canh Chua Ca (Vietnamese Sour Fish Soup)

For a 5-quart pot, you'll need:

2 to 4 fish heads, tails, or fillets. I used catfish but tuna and salmon work well too.
2 to 3 stalks of bac ha (Vietnamese taro stem) or celery if you can't find it, peeled and sliced along the diagonal
2 tomatoes, large dice
1 to 2 cups fresh pineapple chunks
1 cup bean sprouts
a dozen or so okra pods, sliced in 1-inch segments
1 shallot, minced
2 or more cloves garlic, minced
A few sprigs ngo om (Vietnamese rice paddy herb) or rau ram (Vietnamese coriander)
2 tblsp tamarind (I buy seedless tamarind in blocks. They also sell it in paste or liquid concentrated form. Adjust amounts if necessary.)
Nuoc Mam (Vietnamese Fish Sauce), to taste

2 stalks lemongrass, bruised and cut diagonally into about 3-inch segments or big enough to make them easy to remove from the soup pot

Add a few drizzles of oil to your pot and saute shallot, garlic, tamarind, and lemongrass until fragrant. Add cleaned fish heads.

Then, leaving the ingredients in the pot, fill your stock pot 3/4-full. Bring to a boil, turn heat down to medium to simmer, and scoop out any excess foam. You can either remove the lemongrass stalks at this point if you don't want to have to do that while you're eating. I like to leave them in so they can flavor the soup even more. Leaving the lemongrass in big sections makes it easier to find and to remove from the soup later.

Add tomatoes, pineapple, bac ha, and okra and let simmer. Add fish sauce to taste.

After maybe 15 minutes, when the fish is fully cooked and the veggies have slightly softened, taste soup again and add fish sauce if needed.

Add bean sprouts and ngo om when the soup is almost done since they cook almost immediately. Ngo om has a taste and scent like fresh cumin. It adds a lovely dimension to the soup.

Canh Chua Ca (Vietnamese Sour Fish Soup) 6

Ladle into a big soup bowl to serve. Eat plain or spoon over rice.

Canh Chua Ca (Vietnamese Sour Fish Soup) 7


Or you can also make Canh Chua Tom (Vietnamese Sour Shrimp Soup).

So why the update?

Eek! Look at that hodgepodge of a photo.

Canh Chua Ca (Vietnamese Sour Fish Soup) 8

My other Vietnamese fish recipes:
Ca Bong Lau Nuong voi Mo Hanh (Vietnamese Roasted Catfish with Scallion Oil)
Ca Chien Sot Ca Chua (Vietnamese Fried Fish with Tomato Sauce)
Ca Hap Gung Hanh (Vietnamese Steamed Fish with Ginger and Scallions)
Ca Kho To (Vietnamese Braised Catfish in a Claypot)
Cha Ca Thang Long (Vietnamese Hanoi-Style Turmeric Fish with Dill)


  1. wow, this sour fish soup absolutely fantastic! *drooling*

  2. I felt "endangered" when I read this post :O

  3. Isha,

    Hehe, I used catfish, not tigerfish, in my soup. ;)

  4. I LOVE this soup! Our version is almost the same as yours, except we always celery because I don't like bac ha. Hehe I gets what I wants!

    We used to grow bac ha and I loved watching the droplets of water gather on the surface of the leaves.

  5. hey, how come there are no FISH LIPS????

  6. Haha I agree with Jaden. Why'd they lop off the lips?

    I've had this at Lee's Sandwiches and it was pretty good. Since summer's coming to an end, I'm gonna give this recipe a try :) Your pics made my jaw tingle and now I'm drooling.

  7. I ABSOLUTELY LOVE you for putting up this recipe! My sister-in-law used to make this soup for my dad all the time, and living in Arizona, she used celery (and not bac ha) and lime zest and lime juice (and not lemongrass). It was bastardized, but made my dad feel like he was back in Vietnam. Thank you WC!! You have just made my world (and many others unfamiliar with this soup) infinitely better! :D

  8. Christine,
    What? Must have bac ha. The only reason I make canh chua is to eat bac ha. :)


    They got cut off. Wait, do catfish have lips?

    Lee's sells canh chua up there? Really? I don't think I've ever seen it on their menu here.

    Celery and lime work as great substitutes when you can get bac ha or lemongrass. One does what one must.

  9. Hi,

    I hope you're still following these comments. I've had this soup in Vietnam and Thailand this spring and I didn't know what that green veggie was. So it's probably bac ha. I guess it's the one with the small seeds, isn't it? Does it have a cumin like flavour? The ones that I had there definately had.

    We've also had this thingy (with the seeds but without strong cumin taste) when we went to a barbecue bar in Saigon.

  10. Hi Laszlo,
    The bac ha is the arrow-shaped leaf and fibrous stem I have pictures. The seeds are in the okra, which you can also bbq. For cumin flavor, that's ngo gai, a swamp herb, which I don't have pictured.

  11. Hi Wandering Chopstick,

    I just made this soup last night. It is absolutely wonderful. My sister in law use to make this for my husband when he was a kid. My husband has always been bugging me to cook this. However, I have never cooked Vietmese food. Following your recipe was so simple to make. Your version was so much better than hers my husband loves it! It really brings back the old times. Thank you WC for posting such a wonderful recipe.

  12. Hi Mixing Bowl,
    Oh! I'm so glad your husband liked my recipe. Thanks for telling me. I hope you try some of my other recipes.

  13. yum! this is one of my favorites to eat- now i just need some rice and thit kho! :)

  14. Nga,
    Sometimes eating all the veggies in the soup with fish makes me feel like I'm eating all healthy. :)

  15. Your pictures make me hungry! This is my favourite vietnamese dish. I was wondering if you would mind if I used your recipe for an assignment. I asked my mom for her recipe but she was not very good at telling me the quantity for each ingredient. She just puts in whatever amount without using any measuring equipment. Thanks in advanced!

  16. Donna,
    Oops! Forgot to answer in time. I hope your assignment turned out OK! Most Vietnamese moms don't seem to give any measurements because they always cook with this and that. I've had to learn to put in measurements with my recipes myself!

  17. Hi, I came upon this website because I've been dying to make this soup and I love bac ha. However, I haven't been able to find it ANYWHERE. I've checked 3-4 asian groceries in Flushing, NY. Where are you located? Any other ideas on where to get them? Thanks.

  18. Jen,
    I'm in SoCal, which I think is rather obvious if you clicked around on the blog for a few seconds. I don't know NYC at all so I don't know where you'd find it there. But look for Vietnamese grocery stores in particular, not just generic Asian grocery stores since this is a pretty Vietnamese-specific ingredient.

  19. What are your thoughts on the Canh Chua flavor blocks that are sold in the Asian markets for $0.99? Could I use that instead of the tamarind paste?

    1. I'm using those blocks as we speak! Just read this blog and was craving for some Canh Chua but ran out of tamarind paste. :(

      Hope it turns out well!

  20. Thank you for your Vietnamese recipes! I miss the authentic taste of mum's cooking. Canh Chua, Thit Kho, Bho Kho and Pho! mmmm! :)

  21. Janerosity,
    I've never tried canh chua blocks so I can't tell you. I've tried the powder packets and didn't care for them at all. Too artificial in flavor for me.

    I miss my mom's cooking too!

  22. I've tried to make this soup twice and both time I felt my broth lack depth. Any helpful hints for a more robust flavor?

  23. MHSaznChic,
    I'm not sure what you mean by depth? More fish sauce perhaps? Or do you want more sourness, then dd more tamarind?

  24. Thank you for putting the recipe up! My ex-girlfriend and I used to go to a place in Boston called Pho Pasteur and I'd get this all the time with catfish. I just stumbled on the recipe and was inspired to go get a block of wet tamarind and some lemongrass and try it...ahh, memories. You've made a lady nostalgic and happy, so, thank you again :)

  25. Little Green Penguin,
    Aww, thanks for such a sweet comment! :)

  26. Hi WC,

    I made this for my boyfriend today. I didn't have the wet seedless tamarind block, so I substituted with the powder packet. I also left out the okra because he doesn't eat it. He said the soup was "different from the restaurant's." It wasn't as sweet or sour or yellow. I added more tamarind powder and that made it more brown but still "not sour in the right way."

  27. Mini,
    If it's yellow, then it's probably a flavor packet? You'd have to ask the restaurant what kind they use if you want to replicate their flavor.

  28. My mom is your typical Vietnamese cook and just flavors to taste without measuring. She had given me the general idea of what goes into Canh Chua but your recipe really helped fill in the holes. I made this and ca kho to (using your recipe as well) for the first time over the weekend. My husband loved both. Especially the bacon in the ca kho! Now I'm off to find other recipes to try. :) Thanks for sharing!

  29. Cathy,
    Thanks for trying my recipes! Glad you and your husband enjoyed them.

  30. This looks so great. I'm actually going to try your recipe out tonight. It looks exactly like my mom's. Unfortunately, she never taught me how to make it but I recognize the ingredients! Thank you so much! :)

  31. Hoi,
    Having the right ingredients is the most important part. Everything else comes together easily after that. :)

  32. I have made your recipe twice now and it's so good. My kids love it, which is a win!
    I don't like catfish so much as it's high in mercury, but here in Sydney, barramundi is abundant, so I use that which works very well!

    And today, I completely forgot to buy fish but had all the other ingredients, so I made a vegetarian version. Just as popular with the kids but I did miss that sweet fish goodness.
    Thanks for sharing. Love this blog!

  33. Foodie Nutritionist,
    Aww, I love hearing feedback like that. I use whatever fish I have on hand so any kind works really. I don't think I've ever eaten barramundi? It's not common in the U.S. I do admit, I like to pick out the okra and bean sprouts more than the fish myself so a vegetarian version is good too.

  34. I don't like cat fish and tiger fish is it possible to use other kind of fish?

  35. Cooking with Marica,
    Of course. As you can see in the top photo, I've used salmon for this recipe too.

  36. Hi. Thanks for the recipe! I was wondering how you keep the skin from coming off the fish and looking messy?


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