When Charles was growing up in Vietnam's Central Highlands, every meal included a light, brothy soup like this one. Its purpose, he says, "is to stimulate the appetite, much the way...a crystal-clear consommé begins a classic French dinner." Even on a hot summer day, it's a great way to start a meal.
1 whole branzino or black bass (1 lb.), filleted, skeleton and head saved in one piece*
About 1 tbsp. Vietnamese or Thai fish sauce
1 teaspoon cornstarch
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup thinly sliced shallots (from about 3 large)
1 teaspoon minced garlic
2 cups diced fresh or canned tomatoes, with juice
1 piece fresh ginger (1 in. by 2 in.), cut into 1/4-in.-thick coins
1 Thai or serrano chile, stemmed and sliced on the diagonal
Slice fish fillets into 1-in.-wide strips and place in a bowl. Add 1 tbsp. fish sauce and the cornstarch and toss to coat evenly.
Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add shallots and cook, stirring occasionally, until just softened, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook another 30 seconds. Add tomatoes, ginger, chile, fish skeleton and head, and 2 qts. water; increase heat to high and bring to a simmer. Lower heat to a low simmer and cook, uncovered, 1 hour. Remove fish skeleton and head and discard.
Add fish strips and lime juice just before serving, then simmer 3 to 5 minutes, until fish is opaque throughout. Taste broth and add more fish sauce if you like.
Ladle into warmed soup bowls and top with cilantro and toasted garlic. Serve immediately.
*A fishmonger can fillet the fish for you, but be sure to ask for the bones and head--they give rich flavor to the soup.
Note: Nutritional analysis is per cup.
Adapted from Vietnamese Home Cooking, copyright 2012 by Charles Phan.