This soup is meant to be spooned over warm-not-hot white rice and belongs to a class of Vietnamese soups called “canh.” Canh tend to be clear broths flavored with veggies and/or greens and a little bit of meat — or sometimes no meat at all. Canh is a homespun dish probably originally invented for stretching expensive meat back in the day. Because of the emphasis on vegetables, some canh can taste bland to the uninitiated — but those people just need to get over their hang-ups. I find canh to be clean, subtle, vegetal, yet still very flavorful. In more traditional Vietnamese households, a family meal isn’t legit unless some sort of canh is on the table.
My mom pickles her own greens, and I yoink her greens for myself. Thus, I am never wanting for fresh pickled mustard greens! (Aren’t you jealous?) You can certainly buy these at Asian grocery stores, though! They won’t quite taste the same as home-pickled greens, as the ones sold to consumers are heat-treated, but they will do in a pinch. I often see them packaged in vacuum-sealed plastic baggies in the refrigerated section. I’ll include a short recipe for the greens below though, in case you want to make your own.
- Large head of Asian mustard greens (gai choy), thoroughly washed and sliced into 2-inch-wide strips
- 3 liters of water (3/4 gallons of water)
- ¼ white vinegar
- ¼ cup salt
- ½ cup sugar
- 2 cups pickled mustard greens
- 3 tablespoons light cooking oil
- ½ lb pork belly or pork spareribs, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 5 red Thai chilis
- 3 tablespoons Vietnamese fish sauce
- ⅓ cup of water
- Salt to taste
- Preheat oven to the lowest setting (that may or may not be the "warming" setting). Spread your greens out on a sheet pan and let it dry out in the oven as you prepare the brine.
- The brine: In a soup pot, add water, salt, and sugar. Bring it to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the salt. Let the brine cool until warmish (or to room temperature).
- After the water has cool, in a wide-mouthed, lidded, and large container, add your dried greens. Pour the brine over the greens until they are fully submerged. Sometimes, you need to add a small plate in the container to push down the greens into the water.
- The pickle will be ready after two to three days at room temperature. Taste a little bit of the greens each day until it's sour enough to your liking. Store the greens in the refrigerator once it's sour enough to discourage additional souring.
- Greens can be stored for up to a month!
- Add oil to the bottom of a sauce pot over medium high heat. Add in pork and brown the meat for about five minutes.
- Add water and fish sauce to a sauce pot and bring to a boil before lowering heat to a simmer and lid the pot, letting the pork braise for forty minutes to an hour.
- After braising, add in the mustard greens and chilis. The greens with leech out a lot of water, creating a meaty, sour soup.
- Taste and add salt to taste.
- Serve family-style, with lots of jasmine white rice!
- Leftover soup will store in the fridge for maybe five days.
Natural pickles are a new thing to me! I’ve always pickled with vinegar in the past and was under the impression that that was the only way pickles are made.
When I asked my mom about how to make these greens, she rattled off the short list of ingredients and I was like, “Wait, where’s the vinegar?”
She was like, “There isn’t any. It becomes sour naturally.”
Apparently vegetables packed in a light brine and left at room temperature (no more than 75 degrees F) will ferment over a few days. The sour flavor comes from awesome bacteria that creates lactic acid in the solution. And no worries about leaving it out at room temperature for that amount of time, as the acidity of the solution discourages bad bacteria from propagating. The recipe suggests refrigerating the mustard green pickle after a few days, not due to spoilage concerns, but because if left to carry on fermenting, the pickle will become ultra-ultra sour and perhaps unpalatable. The refrigeration serves to significantly slow down fermentation.
Canh is usually a quick soup that can be made in under half an hour, as the meaty-flavors come from meat, not bones. But this particular recipe calls for pork belly to be braised for forty minutes — to soften the skin.
As usual, you can pick your own adventure with the chilies. I like to add heat to just about everything I eat and I totes think we Americans in general can stand to develop a higher heat tolerance because heat opens your taste buds and invites flavors to the party that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to detect as easily without being like, a master eater.
Canh is always served in a big family-style bowl. Each person will have a smaller bowl, filled halfway with warm rice. A healthy ladle of soup is spooned over the rice so that the canh’s “water-level” sits above, like, 80 percent of the rice.
Canh typically does not consist of a meal on its own — though it often does for me. A Vietnamese family meal usually involves multiple dishes and canh is one component. It’s all usually eat with rice, so you’ll maybe eat half a small bowl with a braised meat, veggies, or other “dry” dishes. Then you refill your bowl and eat canh. Rinse, repeat. Rinse, repeat.
I grew up eating this way — lifting the bowl to your mouth and shoveling food into it with chopsticks — so it still feels just a LITTLE bit weird to eat American-style sometimes. Like, at restaurants it’s totally fine and makes sense to eat off plates, but at home, I tend to eat out of teeny, hand-sized bowls when I’m by myself, even with it’s like, spaghetti or breakfast cereal.
You know what’s the worst? Asian restaurants that give you plates and chopsticks to eat rice with. Non-Asians and non-proficient chopstick users are like, wtf, this is hard — how do you do this?
And I’m like, dude, beats me. This IS hard. WHERE ARE THE LITTLE BOWLS?