“Yin and Yang” Balance of Vietnamese Cuisine
My friend Mai who is from Hanoi and my culinary travel companion through Vietnam, said “if I really want to understand Vietnamese Cuisine, I should understand the ‘Yin and Yang’ balance.” This balance derives from the Asian principle of “Wu Xiang,” which means each dish is guided by five elements. The five elements being: Spicy – Metal, Sour – Wood, Bitter – Fire, Salty – Water, Sweet – Earth. Each of these elements correspond to the five organs, gall bladder, small intestine, large intestine, stomach and urinary bladder.
For Vietnamese Cuisine the “Yin and Yang” principle is applied to each dish. For example, sour is considered yin and is complemented by spicy, which is considered “yang” And each dish is prepared with distinct layers of flavors and textures that are often different, but yet complementary. Once you understand this balance, you begin to really understand Vietnamese food.
So with this newly acquired knowledge, I was ready to begin my journey to the Mekong Delta to the “Can Tho” Province
The Mighty Mekong River is the Delta’s livelihood. The Mekong runs through 6 countries, Vietnam, China, Laos, Burma, Cambodia and Thailand. The river provides a large source of ingredients for many of the Mekong Delta’s Cuisine.
Can Tho is the largest Province in the delta and the city is famous for its floating markets, seafood, fruits, hot pots and one specific dish “Sour hot pot – with river fish.” This dish can be ordered in many cities throughout Vietnam, but is unique to Can Tho for the specific greens, herbs and fish they include in their recipe. In its most basic form the recipe consists of tamarind, pineapple, tomatoes and vegetables.
Vietnamese Sour Soup – Canh Chua – “Chua” means sour and “Canh” means soup. This was one of three dishes I had when I first arrived in Can Tho. The dish included a fish native to the delta, called “Anabas,” which can actually live out of water for up to 7 days.
When I first tasted the broth of the soup, I noticed a distinct sour flavor, but I was not clear on what ingredient made the soup sour. I soon learned the broth is made with tamarind paste. Tamarind grows like a weed in Southern Vietnam and is often found all along the sidewalks and streets of Ho Chi Minh City.
The greens and herbs used for the recipe in Can Tho are unique to the Province. However, when I learned this recipe in my cooking class the greens and herbs included were “Elephant Ear Stem” which gets its name from the leaves, which are shaped like a large ear. It has a spongy texture and really provides a layer of texture to the dish, not a lot of flavor. Next was “Rau Om” which is a plant found in rice fields, which translates to “rice paddy herb” in English. And Sawtooth Coriander, which is exactly what it sounds like, coriander, but is a flat long leaf with jagged edges.
Vietnamese Sour Soup – Canh Chua, also has a sweet element to balance the “sour” of the tamarind, which is sugar. A few spoonfuls of sugar is added to the broth and of course a little “dab” of fish sauce, as no Vietnamese dish would be complete without it.
I know many of the greens and herbs may be difficult to locate outside of Vietnam, so substitute them with any herb or green. I believe the most important ingredients in the recipe is the tamarind broth, fish sauce, pineapple and tomato.
During my visit to Can Tho Province I not only enjoyed their food, but I also had a five-hour leisurely boat ride through the Mekong River, visiting the floating markets. The floating markets sell EVERYTHING, from fruits and vegetables to prepared food. I highly suggest visiting this area of Vietnam if you have the time, as it is only a three-hour bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City.
Now I give you Vietnamese Sour Soup – Canh Chua, which I learned from “Chef Khang,” who lived in Texas for about 3 years and is from Ho Chi Minh City. Thanks “Chef Khang” for being patient with all my photo taking during the cooking class and for providing me the foundation to make a few Vietnamese dishes and providing further insight into Vietnamese culture.
- 4½ cups water
- 2 cups green vegetables of your choice, roughly chopped
- ½ cup chopped okra
- ¾ pound shrimp (or any seafood or white fish)
- 1 cup bean sprouts
- 1 tomato, roughly chopped
- ⅓ cup pineapple, roughly chopped
- 1 tablespoon tamarind paste
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh coriander
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic (fried is preferred)
- 1 tablespoon oil
- In a pot sauté garlic (or use fried garlic) with oil until fragrant, add water and bring to a boil. Place tamarind in water (see "how to use tamarind pulp" in note section of this recipe).
- Add the greens (not the coriander), okra, prawns or white fish, bean sprouts, pineapple and tomatoes. Bring to a boil.
- Season the soup with fish sauce, sugar and salt. Garnish with coriander.
Cover the pulp with boiling water (about ½ cup to ¾ cup). Let the pulp sit for 10 minutes, until softened. Remove tamarind from water. Place tamarind in a fine meshed strainer, over a bowl. With a spatula push it through the fine meshed strainer. Use the pulp from the bowl for the recipe.