Vietnamese food is such a wonderful world cuisine because it balances sweet, sour, salty and spicy components. Although I still have a lot to learn about Vietnamese food, I’ve noticed that the more traditional food from Hanoi and the north is often influenced by their Chinese neighbors - with stir-fries and many rice dishes. Pho, the rice noodle soup, is from the north, as are many heartier dishes with beef.
In Saigon and other regions of the south, where many Vietnamese who live in American are from, you’ll see more seafood, vegetables and more spicy and sweeter dishes that use sugar cane. You’ll also find more of a french influence in many of these dishes. In central Vietnam, where the ancient royal courts once were, the food is more elaborate and features many small dishes.
A few years ago, I took my daughter to Vietnam. (She was adopted from Ninh Binh in the north.) One stop on the trip was Hoi An, which is on the south central coast of Vietnam. We were staying at a resort that served assorted regional Vietnam dishes. The food was serviceable, but like many hotels, it lacked any personality. Uninspired, we walked towards the local village and found a restaurant on stilts along the water that we ventured into with our friends who had accompanied us on the trip.
In our family, I’m the Soup Queen as I love to make soups more than anything. Grace is the official Soup Taster. Even though it was about 100 degrees outside, like most Vietnamese, she ordered soup. It was a tomato soup with lemongrass and Vietnamese spices. While The Soup Taster liked everything she'd eaten so far on the trip, this was the first time she said, “Mom, you’ve got to get the recipe." Not being able to speak Vietnamese, I knew this was going to be difficult. I tasted it and our friends tasted it, and we all agreed that I had to figure out how to prepare because it was worth eating again and again.
When I got home I consulted the three or four Vietnamese cookbooks I had but couldn’t find the recipe anywhere. Since I could make a good Italian tomato soup, I figured it wouldn't be that difficult to adapt it and make it Vietnamese. And that seemed just about perfect since we are always happy to adopt Italian food and culture into our multicultural lives.
VIETNAMESE GINGER TOMATO SOUP
2 tablespoons unrefined coconut oil or extra virgin olive oil
2 shallots, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/8 teaspoon red chili pepper flakes
1 28 ounce can Muir Glen organic crushed tomatoes
1 stalk of lemongrass, (use only the inner yellow section and pound it so the oils are released)
1 inch thick slice of fresh ginger root, peeled and sliced thinly
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons nuoc nam sauce (fish sauce)
Juice of 1 lime
1 quart organic vegetable or chicken broth
Cilantro for garnish
Salt and pepper to taste
Optional: Soft tofu cubes, drained
Heat the oil in a large soup pot.
Saute the sliced shallots in the vegetable oil until softened.
Add the garlic, red pepper flakes and stir for one minute.
Add the crushed tomatoes and the lemongrass, fresh ginger, sugar and nuoc nam sauce and stir.
Add the broth.
Bring to a boil and then let it simmer for 15 minutes.
Remove the lemongrass. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add the lime juice and stir.
Add more nuoc nam and red pepper flakes if necessary.
Variation: Add soft tofu, cut into cubes, during the last five minutes when the soup is simmering.