Canh Chua Ca: On Cross-Cultural Consumption

Canh Chua

There’s this odd thing we – especially those from immigrant families – do when it comes to tasting new, usually “ethnic” (for lack of a better word) dishes.  After the first cursory sips/chews/swallows, the proverbial light bulb goes off and we say: “Oh that’s nice…but you should taste the [insert own culture here] version of this!”.  It’s annoying and heart-warming at the same time.  On one hand, the fact that someone claims that they make a better “version” of a dish I grew up with is a bit unappetizing.  “Bro…the Vietnamese one is far better”…”I mean…it’s not as flavorful as the Somali version my mom makes”…”Are you high?  Everyone knows the Arab way is the real one”.  On the other, it’s a quick and solid way to connect to one another; gaps bridged by soups, entrees, and confections.

Filipinos embrace the fierce loyalty we have to the Sinigang as the quintessential Filipino soup.  Just about every college student knows how to make one from even the barest of budgets: meat (pork ribs or fish) + variety of veggies (usually radish, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and green beans) all boiled in a sour tamarind broth.  No one fucks with Sinigang.  So when a good friend uttered the words: “I know what this is!  This is just a Filipino version of a really good Vietnamese Sour Soup called Canh Chua Ca!”, best believe I wasn’t going to take it lying down.  The debate ended with me downloading the recipe for this…”Sour Soup” and trying it out with a few of my own twists.

*Makes 5 – 6 servings.

INGREDIENTS:
– 1.5 lbs. Catfish fillets, sliced into chunks
– 1/2 Red Onion, thinly sliced
– 2 c. halved Okra
– 3 c. halved Green Beans
– 2 c. halved Radishes
– 2 c. Kumatos, halved (or Cherry Tomatoes, or even regular ones, quartered)
– 2 serrano peppers, halved (optional)
– 1 can pineapple chunks in juice, not syrup (or the equivalent in fresh if you can get it)

– 1 knob ginger, sliced into thick chunks with the skin on
– parsley for garnish
– 4 tbsp. Tamarind concentrate
– 4 – 5 tsp. fish sauce (the saltier the better so in this case, perhaps the Filipino version is indeed…better)
– 3 tsp. cumin
– 2 tbsp. sugar (less if you’d like to add a cup of the canned pineapple juice)
– Salt to taste

DIRECTIONS:
1) Heat oil  on medium-high in a large soup pot and saute the onions until translucent (about 3 mins.).

2) Add all spices except for the parsley and mix well, letting the mixture cook through for another minute or so.

3) Pour in about 6 – 7 c. of water (to be honest I rarely measure the amount of liquid I use…if you end up adding too little, add more; too much, add more seasoning!) and bring to a boil, then reduce to medium.

4) Toss in the hard vegetables first (ie. radishes before okra), spacing the ingredients apart about a minute or two.  Add the fish and green beans in last.

5) Bring the heat back up to high and once the fish is just slightly undercooked, you’re good to go!  Turn off the heat as the fish and veggies will continue to cook and there’s nothing worse than limp, overcooked vegetables and mushy fish.

Serve with the obligatory bowl of white rice and feel free to keep the stove warm for refills!  Keep in mind that subsequent reheats will cause a slight increase in spiciness due to the serrano peppers (if you so chose to add them).

Well…there you go: the Vietnamese version of Sinigang (or is it the Filipino version of Canh Chua Ca?!).  To be quite honest, they’re both too damn good to eat and share conversations over that picking a winner almost seems too “sour” an endeavor.

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