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Watercressed Shrimp Soup

(Canh Sa Lach Soan)

This Vietnamese soup is really lovely to look at--I recommend serving in flat soup bowls for the full effect. In taste, the broth is earthy and sour, with an sea-salt tang, all counterpointed by the sweetness of the shrimp and the peppery crunch of the watercress. In a word, it's an elegant appetite stimulant. Serve hot to 4 people as a first course.

Pound the shallot into a paste, then mix in the nuoc mam and the pepper. Toss in the shrimp and pound the paste into them--they should stay whole.

Heat the stock in a large saucepan to a boil, then stir in the reserved shrimp shells, reduce to medium heat, and cook for about 8 minutes. Fish out the shells with a strainer spoon.

When ready to serve, reheat the stock to a boil. Add the shrimp and cook for 1 minute. Toss in the watercress, and cook for another minute. Ladle into bowls and serve immediately.