What you’re looking at is a photo of an authentic asparagus and crab soup (súp măng tây cua). Okay, so the service in a martini glass and the inclusion of a coriander leaf isn’t so traditional authentic, but the underlying soup certainly is. [aside: I can confirm that the person who made it is indeed Vietnamese, though that really has nothing to do with the authenticity of the soup itself]
My understanding is that the French colonial period influenced the development of this dish since asparagus doesn’t grow in Southeast Asia (măng tây apparently translates to “Western bamboo”) but since those early days of fusion cuisine, it’s become one of the most popular dishes in Vietnamese repertoire to the point where it’s a regular feature on Vietnamese wedding banquets.
The classic recipe calls for white asparagus, and the canned or jarred variety to boot. Too bad, since I had some excellent spargel when I was in Germany this spring, but it’s partially textural (it’s a soup and is not supposed to be particularly crunchy) and partially traditional (remember – the stuff doesn’t grow in Southeast Asia so it had to be brought in somehow).
What kind of crab should you throw into this soup?
Fresh crab like snow (Chionoecetes opilio), blue (Callinectes sapidus), Dungeness (Metacarcinus magister) and mangrove [Scylla serrata]) is always good though I’ve had versions made from frozen and/or canned crab which were still acceptable.
Red king crabs (Paralithodes camtschaticus) caught specifically from the waters of the Barents Sea and the European Arctic is a particularly nice option since they are an invasive species. For some reason, Russian marine biologists at the Central Institute for the Acclimatization of Organisms (an organization with the acronym CIAO – no, I am not making this up) had a collective brain fart in 1960 and transplanted the species from the Pacific into these waters so you’d be doing that region a favor by eating them.
Oops, I digress… we’re making soup and not playing Stratego.
- white asparagus (canned, jarred or blanched fresh asparagus), cut into pieces
- crab meat (lump or leg)
- chicken broth
- egg whites
- minced green onion
- minced shallot
- minced garlic
- corn starch
- oyster sauce
- nước mắm (fish sauce)
- sesame oil
Sweat the minced garlic and shallot in sesame oil until soft. Add the crab meat and gently sauté. Mix in one tablespoon of oyster sauce, remove from heat and reserve.
Scramble the egg whites in a bowl and set aside. Make a slurry with the corn starch and cold water and set aside (the amount of slurry required depends on the volume being made and how thick you like your soup).
Bring the chicken stock to a simmer. Add sugar and fish sauce to taste. Add crab mixture and asparagus. Heat gently. Just before service, bring the soup to just under a boil. Remix the starch slurry and add to the soup in a slow steady stream while stirring the soup. Repeat with the egg whites (it’s essentially an egg-drop procedure to get filamentous pieces of egg).
Ladle into a bowl or other receptacle (d-uh). Top with minced green onions and serve immediately.
Rethinking the Soup
As I said, this soup is a classic, but what happens if you don’t like soup? Or what if it’s too freaking hot to comfortably eat soup?
Well, if one has a few special powders, some time, a twisted sense of tradition, and watched one too many repeats of Battlestar Galactica, one could make some minor modifications to the soup and say, reimagine súp măng tây cua as a salad (as what happened at the Carlos Event).
So what’s the difference between the soup in a martini glass and this “soup” apart from the terrifyingly obvious? Actually… not much:
White asparagus – check. It’s actually tied to the green asparagus.
Crab meat – check. It’s fresh snow crab (Chionoecetes opilio) if you’re wondering.
Cornstarch and egg? Check. It’s there – see that tiny little pile underneath the green onion tying the asparagus bundle? Cornstarch and egg.
Soup. Soup. Soup? Oh yeah. Well, check. That’s the translucent thing over the crab. It’s actually chicken stock that was first agar-clarified to remove any residual cloudiness, reconcentrated, and then turned into a sheet using Chad “Chadzilla” Gagliano’s basic formula for gel noodles (0.4% agar, 0.25% locust bean gum, 0.2% xanthan gum; direct link to Chad’s post).
Everything else in the recipe wound up in the eyedropper.
Tradition and modernity? Affront to Vietnamese culture? Okay, so it’s just a little untraditional. So sue me for using fresh asparagus and green asparagus to boot: it was asparagus season, both were really nice, and I never liked canned asparagus because the stuff’s too squishy and tastes of tin. Coriander topping? I had a whack-load of freakingly-expensive coriander sprouts. They’re going on the plate.
2006 Red Rooster Reserve Gerwürztraminer (for the salad version).