Preparing Canh Chua Cá (Sweet And Sour Soup)

Fresh tamarind fruit and leaf on tree in tropical. Tamarind used as a flavoring in Asian cooking. as in this Vietnamese dish of Canh Chua Ca.
Copyright: pongphoto9

Vietnamese soups make great use of sweet and sour flavours and this particular broth known as canh chua ca makes full use of such stark differences. It is part of the culture of the Mekong delta in the south of Vietnam. Traditionally, fish caught in the delta and estuary is used to make a variety of dishes. Like the French favourite of their seafood soup, Bouillabaise, all the heads, tails, and bones are used for making a stock. To make it as filling as possible, chunks of fish are used with a relatively firm, almost chewy texture. The best fish for this is monkfish, basu and catfish especially. You are meant to add the soup bones, tails and fish heads as well but that might not be to our western tastes although it is authentic! 

We have traditionally paired pineapple with tomato and tamarind which is then served up with the fish and prawns. Tamarind and pineapple is a must for the sweetness. Wiser folks say that in fact unsweetened pineapple is needed as the extra sugar in the recipe twists the flavour somewhat. If the juice is too sweet, leave out the added sugar. 

This is also a version which uses fish and other molluscs but you know, a couple of shrimp wontons, some chicken for example also works really well in this soup. Vegan versions are just not up to scratch at the moment – no umami and we have tried so these should be called something else.

Rice or noodles are the carbohydrate of choice if you want a more substantial course and this is often served as a side which can be added.

Serves 4; preparation time: 20 minutes; Cooking time: about an hour.

Ingredients For Canh Chua Cá:


  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 red chili – deseeded and either chopped finely or minced in a blender
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • ground black pepper to taste

The Broth:

  • 500g seafood (approx. 1 lb) (squid, shrimps, prawns, molluscs, fish fillets like monkfish, basu and catfish) – a frozen selection of these pieces is ideal. Clean and dehusk or deshell the seafood. Cut into bite-sized pieces.
  • 2 teaspoons cooking oil – sunflower oil, rapeseed oil
  • ½ onion thinly sliced 
  • 1 clove garlic – minced
  • 1.5 litres chicken stock or fish stock
  • 3 stalks lemongrass – only the thick part but not the outer layers
  • one or two ripe tomatoes – beefsteak, cut into wedges of 6
  • 100g straw mushrooms (optional)
  • 1 fresh Thai bird chili
  • 1 large taro stem – roughly cut (optional)
  • 1/3 cup of sliced fresh okra (optional)
  • 120g bean sprouts, remove seed coats and tails and/or fresh mung bean sprouts
  • 150g fresh or canned pineapple in chunks. It’s best to use unsweetened juice portions where possible.
  • 1 tablespoon to 1/4 cup of fish sauce
  • 2 tablespoons tamarind juice
  • 1 tablespoon sugar but only if the broth is not sweet enough. It’s not necessary in truth.
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 small cucumber or a baby cucumber cut into matchsticks
  • 2 or 3 whole scallions, thinly sliced and in rings if possible to add as a garnish
  • 20 mint leaves or coriander/cilantro leaves. Basil can also be added too.


  1. Place all the marinating ingredients into a large bowl and mix well.
  2. Place all the seafood into the marinade and mix to coat well. Cover with a cloth or cling film and leave for 30 minutes.
  3. Heat a stock pan or frying pan with frying oil to a medium level. Stir-fry the onion and any garlic to get the flavour going.
  4. Add any pineapple juice but not the chunks yet.
  5. To the stock pan or wok, just add  the stock. Bring to the boil and then simmer for 5 minutes.
  6. Add the fish and cook for 15 minutes. It may be 20 minutes if the fish is tougher but check by flaking a little.
  7. Add the tomatoes, mushrooms, okra, taro, fish sauce, lemongrass, pineapple, tamarind juice, black pepper, sugar etc.. Cook for 15 minutes but on a low heat.
  8. Portion out the soup into bowls. Add the garnishes of coriander, scallions and cucumber.
  9. Serve with plenty of steamed rice and noodles. 
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