The Vietnamese are experts at comfort food. Bowl after steamy bowl of noodles and broths, large pots of simmering soups are at the heart of many family kitchens. Soups hold a special place in Vietnamese cuisine, cleansing and soothing the palate, the body, the soul, and sometimes even the occasional hangover.
Chao (rice soup) represents the simplest, humblest, and heartiest of Vietnamese soups, providing nourishment and comfort. Easily consumed and digested, chao is fed to young toddlers and elders alike. Thermoses of chao can be found by many a hospital bed, soothing new mothers and invalids of all kinds. And in the streets of Saigon, in the wee hours of the morning there are little old ladies, serving bowls of chao vit (duck congee) for late night revelers.
As a blank canvas, chao can take on many different versions, from plain rice with salt or soy sauce, to more luscious chicken and duck soups. I recently had a holiday party where I set up a chao bar that consisted of plain chao (just a touch a salt) with a selection of toppings: salted duck eggs, raw quail eggs, cha bong (dried shredded pork threads), braised mushrooms and tofu, ginger poached chicken, pickled mustard greens, scallions, cilantro, fried shallots, slivers of ginger, soy sauce, and fish sauce. Guests were invited to assemble their own bowls of chao. The plain salt chao made it possible to meet a variety of dietary restrictions (vegan, vegetarian, egg allergies, soy allergies, etc.). The chao bar was a BIG hit!
Below, is the recipe for chao ga (chicken congee), one of the most popular version. This recipe calls for uncooked rice that is sauteed with ginger and garlic before being added to the chicken broth. Sauteeing the rice first helps the soup to stay a little thinner and adds a nice garlickly aroma. You can substitute cooked white rice instead (about 2 cups), which will cook faster but will result in a thicker soup that some prefer.
4-5 lb young, free-range chicken, rinsed and dried
3 lbs chicken bones, rinsed
5-6 quarts water
8 quarter size pieces of ginger
1/3 cup fish sauce
1 1/2 cups jasmine rice, rinsed and drained
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 quarter size pieces of ginger, minced
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/3 cup fish sauce, plus more to taste
2 chopped scallions
1/2 medium onion, sliced thin
1 cup chopped cilantro
1 lime, cut into wedges
bean sprouts, rinsed and dried
thinly sliced Thai chili peppers (optional)
Place chicken, chicken bones, water, and ginger in a pot deep enough that the water covers the chicken. Bring pot to a boil, then quickly reduce to a low simmer. Skim scum off as needed. Cook chicken for about 45 minutes or until cooked through. Remove chicken and submerge in cold water until cool. Allow bones to simmer for another 30 minutes. Remove bones and discard. Skim soup carefully and leave on simmer.
In a sauce pan, heat oil over medium heat and add minced garlic and ginger. Stir until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in rinsed rice and sautee for 5 minutes, stirring frequently.
Add rice to the soup and simmer on low for about 30 minutes, stirring very frequently so that the rice does not settle to the bottom and burn. Add more water/broth as needed.
When chicken is cool enough to handle, carefully remove meat and shred into bite size pieces. Set aside.
The soup is ready when rice kernels have broken up and the soup reaches porridge consistency. Ladle into bowls, top with shredded chicken, chopped scallions, cilantro, onions, fried shallots and a sprinkle of black pepper. Serve with a plate of bean sprouts, lime wedges and chili peppers.