Canh: the wonder soup

Nearly every Vietnamese meal is accompanied by a steaming bowl of canh–a clear-broth soup often made with a protein and some vegetables.  Vietnamese aunties and grandmas will urge you to have some canh to rebalance your chi, chase away colds, prevent blemishes, cure laryngitis, increase fertility, and a host of other maladies, real and imagined.  But what I always liked best about canh was its ability to round off a meal and cleanse the palate.

Unlike Vietnamese noodle soups, which are meals in a bowl, canh is served as part of a multi-course family style meal.  It can be made with pork, fish or even tofu but almost always includes some kind of vegetable, from leafy mustard greens or fuzzy squash and bitter melon.  One particularly well-known version is canh chua, which hails from the South and usually features catfish, tomatoes, pineapple, okra, bean sprouts, tamarind paste and a variety of herbs.  Another popular canh features cylinders of bitter melon stuffed with ground pork and shrimp.

For an easy, no fuss canh, I like to use pork spare ribs, mustard greens, and king oyster mushrooms.  Other easy and equally excellent combinations are pork/tofu/mushrooms, fish/tomatoes/ong choy, pork/fuzzy squash, pork/butternut squash.  And in addition to pork ribs, ground pork or shrimp (mixed with chopped scallions, salt and pepper) and fish heads also make very tasty canh broth.  So look in the fridge and see what fabulous combinations you can come up with!

3/4 lbs. pork spare ribs, preferably cut into 1-2 inch chunks
3 cups water (more if needed to cover the ribs completely)
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons fish sauce
3 cups mustard greens, cut into 1.5 inch sections
2 cups king oyster mushroom, cut into 1 inch cubes
a few stems of cilantro, chopped
one scallion, thinly sliced
dash of black pepper

Bring a small pot of water to a boil (enough to cover the pork ribs), add ribs and boil rigorously for a couple of minutes to remove any impurities.  Drain, rinse ribs place into a pot with 3 cups clean water, salt and fish sauce and simmer (do not boil) for 1 hour, skimming any impurities as needed.  Add more water periodically if needed to keep ribs submerged.

While soup simmers, prep mushrooms, mustard greens and herbs. Add mushrooms 15 minutes before serving and mustard greens 3 minutes before serving. Sprinkle with herbs and a dash of black pepper.  Serves four as part of a multi-course meal.

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