OK, You Like Soup, We Get It


The latest entry is a Vietnamese staple, măng tây cua, a crab and asparagus soup.  This is the perfect time for soup making in general because a persistent cold snap has left May feeling more like March.  How welcome would a nice warm bowl of tropical-glistened shellfish be right now?

Moreover, the chilly weather can’t last forever, meaning fresh asparagus won’t be around much longer.  Ironic that a soup from Vietnam’s jungled shores is best made with asparagus, a cool-weather crop that can’t tolerate even our relatively-anemic Northern summer heat.  More about that later.

In common with one of this journal’s earliest submissions, last August’s Summer Rolls, this recipe for măng tây cua was found in Andrea Nguyen’s wonderful cookbook, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen.    It’s a great source of recipes, which one of you presented as a splendid gift a couple Christmases ago.  Much inspiration already, so many more ideas to try.

The soup starts with chicken stock, to which shallots, sautéed separately until fragrant, are added.  Just before serving, a beaten egg is drizzled slowly and stirred into the hot soup, enriching it even more.  Along with the asparagus, the French influence is unmistakable.

The crab and fish sauce gives măng tây cua a distinctive Vietnamese flavor, though.  In fact, local ingenuity takes the crabs, which are abundant along Vietnam’s shore and in its estuaries, adds a French touch and incorporates it all into what, essentially, is a Chinese egg drop soup.  Vietnam’s history in a bowl, the total package even better than each of its promising parts.

French colonists in Indochina quickly became homesick for asparagus.  Because growing it in a tropical climate is impossible, they imported cans of the vegetable from France.  The Vietnamese soon took a liking to it as well, and before long “French bamboo” (as the Vietnamese called asparagus) made its way into local kitchens.

In fact, many măng tây cua recipes call for using canned or jarred asparagus.  This is a necessity in the tropics, and here too in the ten months every year fresh asparagus is unavailable.  However, when superb, locally-grown asparagus is in season, why not take advantage?

Last autumn I decided to include măng tây cua in this blog’s recipe lineup, but kept it on hold until now, when good asparagus is at its peak.  Those of you who also love asparagus will know why it’s worth the wait.

*****

Măng Tây Cua 

(Vietnamese Asparagus and Crab Soup)

  • 6 cups chicken stock (*1)
  • 3/4 pound asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil (*2)
  • 1 large shallot, sliced thinly
  • 1/3 pound crabmeat
  • 1/2 teaspoon fish sauce
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper (*3)
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch dissolved in 2 tablespoons water
  • 1 egg, plus 1 yolk, beaten

In a large saucepan, bring the stock to a boil over high heat.  Add the asparagus, lower the heat to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for 10 to 12 minutes.  Remove from the heat and set aside for at least 30 minutes.  This allows the soup to absorb even more asparagus flavor.  This is one of the few times you actually want to “overcook” asparagus.

Meanwhile,  in a saucepan heat the oil over medium heat.  Add the shallots and cook gently, stirring occasionally, until tender and fragrant, about 3 to 4 minutes.  Add the crabmeat and continue cooking for 1 to 2 minutes.  Add the fish sauce, salt and pepper, remove from heat and set aside.

Return the soup to a medium heat until it reaches a low simmer.  Add the crab mixture, stirring gently to distribute evenly.  (*4)  Pour in the cornstarch mixture slowly with one hand while stirring the soup with the other.  Continue stirring for 1 minute.

Turn off the heat.  Slowly drizzle in the beaten egg in a wide circular pattern, stirring to break the egg into chiffon-like threads.  Ladle into bowls and serve.

*****

NOTES:

1 – Canned is fine, but if you have homemade chicken stock, it’s even better!

2 – I used peanut oil, of course.

3 – Because they were on hand, I used Szechuan peppercorns – my new addiction.  More important, they contribute tingly and almost floral notes.  Intriguing.

4 – At this point I threw in half a cup of chopped scallions, as much for the color as for the flavor.

 

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