The secrets of this soup are the noodles (which absorb other flavors beautifully), the hot-pungent mixture of serrano and fish sauce, and the nice range of colors and texture, varied but not jarringly so. It’s best on a spring or fall day, not hot but not really cold yet, with a waft of assimilation in the air.
1 whole redfish, three to four pounds, cleaned, scaled, and gilled
1 packet fresh flour-and-vegetable-based Vietnamese noodles
1 pickled serrano pepper (jalapeño is okay too)
12-15 cherry tomatoes, or 2 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
1 bunch cilantro
1 bunch scallions
2 medium onions
1 bell pepper, preferably red
1 can bamboo shoots
1 packet dried lily buds
2 stalks fresh lemongrass
2 cloves garlic
Filet and skin the redfish, and cut the filets into good-sized chunks. Put them in a bowl and pour about a tablespoon of fish sauce over them. Meanwhile, put half a cup of lily buds in a bowl of water and let them soak. Take the body of the fish, break it in half, and put it in a pot with a cup of white wine, one onion (peeled and quartered), pepper, a bay leaf, two sprigs of coriander, and water to cover. Bring to a boil, simmer for twenty minutes, and strain - this is the stock for the soup.
Chop up the other onion and shallot and cook in a quarter cup of olive oil over medium-high heat. When the onion and shallot are soft, chop the bell pepper, mince the garlic, and chop the lemongrass (you do this after first removing the outer leaves and cutting off the top 2/3 of the stems, so that the part you’re chopping is fairly soft.) Add to the onion and stir. Chop the serrano pepper and add it, along with a bay leaf, salt, and pepper. Let it cook, stirring occasionally, for about five more minutes.
Add the tomatoes, stir briefly, then add 2/3 cup of white wine. Cover and cook for five to ten minutes, while bringing three cups of the stock to a simmer in a separate pot. Add the stock, the fish chunks, marinating in fish sauce, and a handful each of lily buds - with their tough ends pulled off - and bamboo shoots to the pot of seasonings. (Another ingredient you might add here is chopped Vietnamese straw mushrooms.) Cover and cook five minutes. Add the noodles, roughly chopped. Cover and cook one or two more minutes.
Chop a mixture of cilantro and scallion greens, sprinkle on top, and serve with hot French bread and cold beer.
Editor’s Note: Most of the ingredients are available at your local Vietnamese grocery—I have serious doubts only about the cherry tomatoes. It is crucial that the redfish and the noodles be as fresh as possible, preferably in their first few hours on the shelves.
You’ll find these in the produce section (not with the dried noodles on the shelves). They come in bags of four packets each. You can substitute dried rice sticks, or rice vermicelli, which must be soaked in water before cooking.