Vietnamese Sour Soup Flavored With Spring’s Secret Ingredient–Rhubarb

Vietnamese sour soup
A big bowl of canh ca plus rice makes for a satisfying spring supper. Do you notice the delicate blush of the broth from the rhubarb?

Rhubarb ranks way up there, together with ramps and fava beans, as a local vegetable I have absolutely no clue how to tackle.

In Singapore, where I didn’t eat my first fresh, fuzz-covered peach until I was 14 and imported smoked salmon cost $50 an ounce (okay so maybe not that much, but you get the point), there was nary a stalk of rhubarb in sight.

Every spring since I moved stateside, when a friend waxes lyrical about grandma’s strawberry-rhubarb pie, or my inbox overflows with emails linking to the latest and greatest rhubarb recipes, I’d be as elated as a ladybug chewing on a leaf. I simply didn’t get all the hoo-hah that swirled around spring’s first fruit (right, it’s a vegetable but many American cooks think of it as a fruit because it’s a common ingredient in dessert).

After all these years of being reticent about rhubarb, I wondered if I just might be missing out. I also wanted to truly enjoy the Pacific Northwest’s bounty, so I decided to reexamine my feelings toward the pie plant, so named because it’s most commonly used in pie. Of course I had to find a way to use it in an Asianesque preparation. No easy task, mind you.

Inspiration eventually came in the form of a Vietnamese sour soup (canh chua).

We were celebrating my mom’s birthday with about 20 (!) of her friends at a Vietnamese restaurant in Seattle’s Central District when a big, steaming bowl of soup was placed in front of me. I scooped up some of the crystal clear soup brimming with bright red tomatoes, brilliantly-green baby bok choy, bean sprouts as white and unblemished as a bride’s wedding dress, and of course, the requisite bac ha (aka taro stem) into a bowl. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting the broth to have that much flavor. I didn’t think a clear vegetable soup could! But the tamarind-soured soup was tempered by the right amount of sweetness, and the vegetables tasted as fresh as morning’s first dew. I shamelessly ate four bowls!

When I next saw rhubarb at the market, it all came together. Rhubarb is sour. Canh chua is sour. Why not bring them together?

I contemplated the best way to bring out rhubarb’s pucker power in my soup and decided to stirfry it with the aromatics before adding the rest of the ingredients. I liked the subtle tang of the soup as well as the resulting texture of the rhubarb. In a cool coincidence, Marvin at BurntLumpia devised a different method to extract rhubarb’s sourly delights for the Filipino sour soup, sinigang. Have a look. (We didn’t plan this, I swear!)

Perhaps next year when spring rolls around, I’ll have another stroke of genius, this time on the sweet side. At the very least, I’ll be joining the masses in cheering the joys of rhubarb.

If you have an idea for an Asian preparation using rhubarb (especially a sweet one), do leave a comment!

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Vietnamese Sour Vegetable Soup with Rhubarb (Canh Chua Chay)

If you are unfamiliar with rhubarb (like I was!), do read this tutorial about handling and preparation. Be sure to remove all traces of the leaves as they contain toxins. The rhubarb imparts a tang that’s a little more coy than tamarind but you end up with a pretty soup tinged a delicate pink. Plus, the rhubarb develops a soft, spongy texture akin to bac ha (taro stem), the vegetable traditionally added to canh chua.

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, chopped (3/4 cup)
2 small stalks rhubarb, halved lengthwise and chopped into ¼-inch pieces (1 cup)
6 cups vegetable stock (I made mine using Harvest brand MSG-free vegetable bouillon)
2 large firm, ripe tomatoes, cut into eighths
1/2 small Chinese (napa) cabbage, sliced, green leaves and white stalks separated
1-1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon fish sauce
8 ounces bean sprouts, tails snapped off
Chopped cilantro and green onions for garnish
Lemon wedges to serve (optional)

Time: 20 minutes
Makes: 4 to 6 servings as part of a multicourse family meal

Swirl the oil into a large pot and heat over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the garlic and onion and stir and cook until the onion turns translucent, 2 to 3 minutes.

Add the chopped rhubarb and stir and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until the rhubarb pieces soften and turn a shade paler. Pour in the vegetable stock and bring to a boil.

Add the white cabbage stalks and cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the cabbage leaves and the tomatoes, and cook for another 1 to 2 minutes until the tomatoes soften a little and the cabbage is cooked but still crisp (or for however long you may like).

Stir in the sugar and the fish sauce. Taste and adjust the flavors as needed. Turn off the heat and add the bean sprouts, they will cook in the residual heat but still be crunchy. Sprinkle with cilantro and green onions with or without abandon.

Serve immediately on the table family style, or in individual bowls with steamed rice and another dish or two. Or just have a huge bowl of it with rice. You can also have lemon wedges on the table if you’d like to spritz some juice on your soup

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If you have an idea for an Asian preparation using rhubarb (especially a sweet one), do leave a comment!

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Take a Can of Creamed Corn …

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My husband, hungry_hobbit for those who need reminding, never tried *gasp* fresh asparagus until he was all growns up, or in my mind, till he met me. His mom fed him canned asparagus (I am told she still prefers canned to fresh to this very day.) He’d probably never eaten so much of this spindly vegetable all in a row, either, till he met me–we ate asparagus almost every day for a week when I was doing an assignment on this elegant spear. We had green, purple, and white asparagus; stir fried, made into mousse, pureed into a potage …. Anyway, I digress.

What I’m trying to say is that I’m not usually one for canned vegetables. I like my veggies perky and fresh, sometimes with their roots attached, perhaps coated with a fine sprinkling of dirt and tasting robustly of the land. (Yes, I do have a vegetable garden although it’s looking a little sparse this year without my dad’s assistance.)

I have to make one exception: canned corn.

Somehow or another, corn kernels manage to stay sunshiney–both in color and disposition–sweet, and crisp under cover of anodized tin, a far cry from its mushy and dingy-looking carrot and green pea counterparts. And if you’ve never had canned rutabaga, otherwise known as swede in England where I first had it … ugh …don’t.

And get ready for this, I love cream-style corn! I guess it’s like durian, I grew up eating it and it’s one of my all time favorite things to eat. With the addition of a little water and starch, cut corn is transformed into a batch of creamy goodness. When I was growing up, my mum turned canned creamed corn into two simple dishes: corn soup and corn fritters.

I was surfing the internet for fun nuggets on cream-style corn and I found this 11-page document published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture: “United States standards for grades of canned cream style corn. Effective July 1, 1957.” The document’s chapters go into great detail about identity, colors, rating factors, consistency, flavor, and tenderness, among other things. I never knew that canned corn, or canned anything for that matter, was held to such high standards. Take note, you only want U. S. Grade A or U.S. Fancy.

I’ll never look at canned creamed corn the same again.

Corn fritters

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These corn fritters can be eaten as a snack or as part of a meal with rice. My mum likes to add finely chopped kaffir lime leaf to add fragrance and flavor. I didn’t in this recipe but for those who don’t make it to the Asian grocery store often enough, snip lemon verbena leaves instead for a similar citrusy scent and savor.

Time: 1 hour

Makes: 10-12 fritters

1 (14 oz) can cream style corn

1 large egg

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

3 oz cooked shrimp

1 stalk green onion, cut into ‘O’s

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon white pepper

1 cup of oil for frying

In a medium bowl, combine all ingredients except oil. Mix well until no large lumps are left. In a skillet, heat oil over medium-low heat until shimmering. Fill a 1/4 measuring cup slightly less than full of batter and slowly dribble into hot oil to form a mound about 2.5″ in diameter. The patties will not be totally submerged.

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Cook until golden brown ruffles form around edges. About 5 minutes. Flip with tongs or spatula and cook for another 3 to 4 minutes until cooked through.

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Remove from oil and drain on paper towels.

Easy-peasy creamy corn soup

This soup is perfect for a cold, dreary day and anytime you want an easy light lunch. My basic recipe comprises only two ingredients: one can of cream-style corn and an egg. But if you want to get a little fancier, just like at the local Cantonese restaurant, you can add chopped crab meat, ham or chicken, and a dash of Chinese wine or sherry.

Time: 10 minutes

Makes: One Pat-sized serving

1 (14 oz) can cream style corn

7 oz water or chicken broth

1 egg, lightly beaten

Salt and white pepper to taste

1/4 teaspoon sesame oil, or to taste (optional)

1/2 stalk green onion, finely chopped for garnish (optional)

In a medium saucepan, combine cream-style corn and water or broth (no need to pull out the measuring cups, just fill half the can with liquid). Bring to boil over medium heat. About 3 minutes. Stir in the salt and white pepper (now’s also the time to add wine or cooked meat if using). Turn down heat to low and pour egg into soup in a steady stream, and quickly stir in one direction until skinny ribbons form. Remove from heat. Drizzle with sesame oil and garnish with green onions.