People line up at the doors of Phó restaurants night and day to sit at trencher tables and feast on the soup til sweat pours down the backs of their heads.
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Vietnamese Soup Customs
Soup is customarily served for breakfast in Vietnam--big bowls of steaming noodle soup, with meat and any number of ingredients added at the last minute, like bean sprouts, cilantro, basil, chili peppers, lime slices, and green onions. All, of course, spiced with with plenty of fish sauce (nuoc mam), chili-garlic sauce, and/or hoisin sauce in nearby dipping dishes. It's an unusual melange of cooked rice noodles, raw vegetables and herbs, and shaved raw meat or seafood that cooks in the broth just as it's brought to table.
Phó, as it's known, is now hugely popular in the United States--and people line up at the doors of Phó restaurants night and day to sit at trencher tables and feast on the soup til sweat pours down the backs of their heads. The term phó translates as "your own bowl," since it's one of the few meals where the food is not passed around and shared.
"Small" soups, by contrast, are served as first courses--they generally don't have noodles; they're served in small portions; and they're called sup. The famous Sup Mang Tay, or Crab and Asparagus Soup is in this category--so is Sup Nam Trang, a fascinatingly complex soup of crab, shrimp, and dried white fungus (mushroomlike).
Finally, the class of soups known as Canh are generally served family style, out of one big bowl--often spooned into smaller bowls at table with rice. And they are generally light--also served as a first course to whet the appetite. These include Canh Sa Lach Soan (Watercress-Shrimp Soup), Canh Chua Tom (Hot and Sour Shrimp and Lemongrass Soup), and Canh Chua Ca (Hot and Sour Tamarind Fish Soup).
But what about soups for snacks? Foodwriter Thy Tran from San Francisco (website at www.wanderingspoon.com) writes "the Vietnamese enjoy sweet bean soups as snacks. The whole class is known as che, but they each have a specific name that usually reveals the color of the bean: che dau den (black bean), che dau trang ("white bean," or what we know here as black-eyed peas), even che dau xanh ("green beans," referring to the green covering on mung beans). Coconut milk, lotus seeds, taro root, tapioca, even crunchy seaweed are common additions. Western Vietnamese restaurants sometimes offer them as dessert, but they're really meant for snacking, which SE Asians love to do. You can serve che warm or chilled."
Thy adds, "Interestingly, the idea of using beans in savory dishes (other than sprouts) is not as natural for most Vietnamese people. Just like when I told my family, while sipping artichoke tea in Saigon, that in the States we serve the whole vegetable as a delicacy, they were horrified."