Mekong fish soup with choko shoots

Bowl of Laos-style fish soup with rice vermicelli, choko (chayote) shoots, cabbage and herbsChoko (chayote) shoots – sechium edule – illustration by Alex Hotchin

Chokos are on my mind, even entering my dreams! (Well, this happened once – I dreamed I was living in the country near a friend and a block of land came up for sale that stretched behind both our houses. We decided to buy it together so we could plant a choko vine that would grow in both directions, reaching each yard. Ha ha, it was a lovely idea and made me grin when I woke up.) … An actual choko grows over our Melbourne back fence, coming from the courtyard of our Indian neighbours, Roopa and Giri. We probably would never have met them had it not been for this plant straddling the palings, and also an old plum tree down the back of our yard (we met for the first time while I was clambering on a shed roof picking plums, and offered them some of the harvest). We don’t see each other much (the nature of back fence neighbours), but when it’s choko season I pop my head over and a little exchange begins consisting of chokos, lemons, herbs, chit chat and recipes, and sometimes even cups of chai.

I am slowly building my repertoire of choko dishes, and the more I cook them, the more I think they are a wonderful vegetable. But right now, what really inspires me are the leafy shoots. Just like pumpkin, sweet potato and snow pea plants, chokos have more than one thing to offer. Before the fruit is ready to pick, you can harvest the growing tips and eat them as a leafy green. Tender and juicy with a mild flavour – such a treat to me, partly because they feel like a bonus (a bit like picking zucchini or pumpkin flowers if you manage to have enough).

You don’t need to have a choko plant nearby to enjoy the shoots – an Asian market will serve you well. In autumn and winter, you can usually find them for sale. Choko shoots are those thin and tendrilly bunches (pumpkin shoots are stockier with less curls).

I just love the Taiwanese name for choko shoots: long xu cai (dragon’s whiskers). These shoots feature along with seven other interesting vegetables and herbs in a project of mine called Unsung Edibles, made with illustrator Alex Hotchin. Together we made a beautiful art print that is sold with a bonus card of practical info to inspire people to try each ingredient. The illustration above is by Alex Hotchin, from the project.

Pile of choko (chayote) shoots snipped fresh from the plant, ready for cooking

Harvesting and cooking shoots
If you have access to a choko plant (or pumpkin, sweet potato, etc), then here is how to harvest and cook the shoots.

  • Simply snip off 10–15 cm of the growing tips with scissors. You will know the stem is tender if it cuts easily (if it seems a little tough to cut through, then just try cutting a little higher up the stem).
  • You can either cook the shoots whole, or chop them into smaller lengths as preferred. They only need brief cooking, such as blanching for a minute or two, or throwing into a wok or pot towards the end.
  • While you can stir-fry the shoots, I find they like juicy dishes best of all, especially Asian noodle soups where they are wonderful tangled up with the noodles, and also in saucy curries.

Roadside seller in southern Laos with a pot of brick red soup, fresh rice noodles, and salad

The story of this soup
We came across this soup almost 15 years ago in northern Cambodia and southern Laos near the Mekong River. It started popping up at markets and roadside stalls, and I found it utterly delicious and inspiring. The photo above was snapped in Laos from the window of an open bus while it stopped briefly – I took it partly so I could look back on it later and see what was in the soup. As we travelled further north to the capital of Laos and beyond, the soup suddenly disappeared. (Of course it did; food changes from region to region, but I did miss it … To add to the mystique, I never learnt the Laos or Cambodian name for it.)

I kept thinking about the soup and wrote plenty of notes. I had grand plans to figure out how to cook it when I got home. But somehow I never did – thinking  it’s probably one of those dishes that would be tricky to recreate.

Then this year, I tried making it without actually setting out to – just because I bought a whole fish and was wondering what to cook. And the weirdest thing was, the soup was brilliant first go! This doesn’t happen very often when creating recipes.

Looking at the photo above, I realise my soup is more yellow than red, but I don’t want to put much chilli in it, because I remember the soup as savoury and comforting without being spicy. So while this recipe may not be 100 per cent authentic, it still feels amazingly close to the memory.

Bowl of Laos-style fish soup with rice vermicelli, choko (chayote) shoots, cabbage and herbs

Mekong fish soup with choko shoots

This comforting fish soup gives chicken soup a run for its money, and is surprisingly easy to make. It is lightly creamy with a little coconut milk, with a beautiful rounded fish flavour. The plate of herbs and vegetables on the side turns it into part soup, part salad, and there are lots of different possibilities: white cabbage is wonderful, but you can also use wombok, beansprouts, sliced raw beans (snake beans to be authentic), and herbs such as coriander, mint and Thai basil. The choko shoots are also optional, but are tender and juicy and add that jungle element (in Laos I also saw water spinach, fiddlehead ferns and other wondrous inclusions).

The soup begins with buying a whole fish from the market (or catching one if you’re lucky!). It doesn’t need to be a premium variety – I always look for the lesser-known fish that sell for a cheaper price, but I make sure they look sparkling and clear in their eyes. I have used bonito, but you could also use mullet, Australian salmon, small bream or snapper …. The fish doesn’t need to be too big – around 800 g is perfect.

The fish is going to give you two meals: the fillets, which you can cut off and cook in any way you like, and the stock made from the head and frame, for making into this soup. I think it’s best to make a meal with the fillets first, then the soup later in the week.

Fish stock
1 whole fresh fish weighing around 800 g, scaled and gutted
2 red shallots or ½ red onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, sliced
3 cm ginger, sliced
8 kaffir lime leaves (4 double leaves)
1 teaspoon shrimp paste (or slice of shrimp paste roughly this size)
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon turmeric
1.75 litres (7 cups) water

1 bunch choko (chayote) shoots, bases trimmed, stems cut in half or thirds (optional – see above)
about 300 g rice vermicelli noodles
125 ml (½ cup) coconut cream (or coconut milk – but use more)
fish sauce to taste
1 red shallot or ¼ red onion, finely sliced
one or more raw vegetables: white cabbage or wombok (shredded); bean sprouts; green beans or snake beans (finely sliced on an angle)
one or more herbs: coriander (cilantro), Thai basil, mint, sawtooth coriander
lime or lemon
sliced fresh chilli (optional)

Check the fish for any remaining scales and flick them off with a knife if needed. Rinse the fish inside and out, removing any remaining particles of blood or gut. Place on a chopping board. Use a small sharp knife to cut off the 2 fillets. To do this, hold onto the tail with one hand and insert your knife into the flesh just above the tail. With the knife on its side, slowly cut under the fillet working as close to the spine as you can, until you have reached the top of the fish and removed the fillet. Trim the wing section from the fillet, and trim any fins attached on top and bottom. Use the fillets in the dish of your choice, and keep the trimmings for your soup. (You may also want to remove the line of central bones from your fillets – you can do this one by one with tweezers.)

Place the head and frame of the fish in a large saucepan, plus all the trimmings. Add the remaining stock ingredients and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and leave to cool and continue to infuse for an hour or so. Strain the stock, which should look lightly yellow on top and a little ‘muddy’ underneath (not so brown as the Mekong!). If desired, you can pick all the fish flesh from the bones and mash it to a paste – this doesn’t yield much, but is a delicious addition to your soup. Refrigerate the stock and fish paste if you are not making the soup on the same day.

Bring a medium saucepan of water to the boil. Add the choko shoots and blanch them for about a minute ­– they should remain very green and lightly crunchy. Scoop them out with tongs or a slotted spoon. Cook the rice vermicelli in the same water until just tender. Drain and rinse well in cold water (this ensures the noodles don’t stick together, and also cools them down).

Reheat the stock in a saucepan, adding the coconut cream and fish sauce to taste. The soup should be fairly salty, remembering that the noodles and vegetables are unsalted.

Toss the sliced shallot with the raw vegetables and herbs you are using, adding a generous squeeze of lime or lemon juice.

Add a coil of rice noodles to each person’s bowl. Top with the choko shoots, and scatter with the fish paste if using. Ladle over the hot broth (you can make the bowls more soupy or more salady as desired). Take to the table and serve with the salad plate, with extra lime or lemon wedges, and chilli if desired.

Serves 4

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