As refugees, our family was eager to absorb all the Americana we could
to gain a sense of belonging. But despite our desire to learn and taste
all things American, we rarely deviated from the Vietnamese custom of
having casual weeknight soups called canh.
“A traditional Viet meal has canh, a meat dish, a vegetable, and rice,” my parents repeated over and over. For that reason, Mom prepared her soups five days a week. In the late afternoon, she would take a break from her tailoring business to make dinner, cooking the soup first to allow the flavors to develop. When it came time to eat, the canh, no matter how simple it was, had to be majestically served in matching bowls to meet my mother’s demand for dining formality. We would say “nước sôi, nước sôi” (boiling water, boiling water) as we carried the two hot bowls to the table, placing one at each end.
Hot they were. We couldn’t escape canh even when the Santa Ana winds blew through Southern California and the steaming broth made us sweat. At one point my siblings and I complained about eating the soups all the time, and Mom fired back that canh helped our bodies adjust to outside temperatures by warming them up in cold weather and vice versa in hot weather. Canh was a sacred subject, so we didn’t challenge her.
Canh is the generic term for everyday soups that are mostly made with water, not stock. The simplest version is made by seasoning the liquid leftover from boiling green vegetables for a meal. Associated with rustic living and hard times, this ascetic canh can be quite nice, especially with some dried shrimp added for flavor. Most canh, however, marry meat or seafood with vegetables and perhaps a last-minute herb garnish to make a homey and delicious soup. Indeed, a wide range of canh exist, and some cooks prefer complicated ones with stuffed vegetables, noodles, and other embellishments. I prefer straightforward soups that showcase the pure flavors of their ingredients. They require less fuss and leave more time for cooking other dishes.
Cháo, a rice porridge eaten throughout Asia, was another kind of soup that regularly graced our family table. Known in English by its south Indian name, congee, or by its Cantonese name, jook, this soup is made with an astonishingly small amount of rice and lots of water and/or stock. Long simmering releases all the starch in the rice, yielding a creamy consistency. Whole chickens, ducks, or fish are sometimes used to flavor the soup and provide a meat accompaniment.
There are countless recipes for cháo to fit nearly any occasion and budget. Like many older Vietnamese, my dad believes that plain cháo—made with rice, water, and salt—is a curative, and he prescribed it for my siblings and me whenever we got sick, much like Western chicken soup. Because it was so bland, we hoped and prayed that Western medicine would hasten our recoveries and free us from his cháo diet. But as an adult, I can testify to its restorative powers. A larger budget or a special celebration may warrant my mom’s cháo bồi, a northern Vietnamese classic containing chicken, shrimp, wood ear mushrooms, and tapioca pearls.
When Viet cooks want to impress or celebrate special occasions, they make súp, a name derived from the French soupe. Unlike canh or cháo, súp is served as a separate starter course at more formal meals. Delicately flavored, with varying textures and colors, some of these fancier soups are French inspired, while others are Chinese or Vietnamese in origin. All of them require more time because they are based on rich meat broths. They also demand the purchase of special ingredients, such as white fungus or asparagus, which is relatively costly in Vietnam.
The recipes in this chapter are organized by these three categories of soup, canh, cháo, and súp. The selections represent both my favorites and the remarkable range of Vietnamese soups.