All too often, the tom yum served in Thai restaurants here has had the personality strained out of it. Literally. All those woody, inedible bits that go into making the flavour of this classic hot and sour soup so fantastic are strained out and dumped before the dish is presented to the table. Not so traditionally. The first time I ate tom yum in Thailand was on a deck built out over the ocean on the island of Koh Chang, in the Gulf of Thailand over near the Cambodian border. It was dark – the kind of dark that falls like a thick, velvety blanket in the tropics – and the tealight candle was doing a lovely job of keeping the lighting to an ambient minimum. And thus I navigated my first real Thai tom yum in the half-dark, extracting lemongrass stalks, kaffir lime leaf shreds, and dangerously hot chunks of chilli; and becoming acquainted with the real taste and textural landscape of this soup. This slightly adapted recipe comes from Dao of The Red Orchid cooking school up in Pai, northwest of Chiang Mai and the source of most of the Thai recipes I cook at home. Dao added a bit of coconut milk in her tom yum, an optional extra that gives the soup a more cloudy appearance. Although the list of ingredients looks fairly long, the soup is really easy and quick to make.
This serves 4 as a main, with steamed rice on the side. Adjust quantities or ingredients according to your own taste. The original version I learnt wasn’t packed with vegetables like this is, but I’ve added a few more greens to make it more substantial and nutritious.
1.5 litre stock (half chicken, half fish, or your choice)
1 litre or more water
2 stalks lemongrass, sliced into 4cm pieces
About 3 Tbsp peeled and finely chopped galangal
4 kaffir lime leaves, torn from the stem
1 Tbsp Thai chilli paste (one that has shrimp in it is best)
1/4 cup coconut milk
200g firm white fish, such as kingfish
1/2 cup green beans, sliced
3/4 cup broccoli florets
1/2 cup mushrooms (small button are good, or I’ve used enoki here)
4-6 small Roma tomatoes, quartered
1 small onion, sliced
3 Tbsp fish sauce
2-3 bird’s eye chillies, crushed (or 7-15, going by Dao’s recipe!)
Juice of 3 limes, and zest of 1 kaffir lime if you can get one
200g raw shelled prawns
Chopped spring onion and coriander to garnish
In a large pot, heat the stock and as much water as you desire and add the lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime and bring to boil. Add chilli paste, coconut milk, fish, all the vegetables and let simmer quickly until those ingredients are just cooked. Add onion, fish sauce, crushed chilli, lime juice and zest and prawns and cook until prawns are pink and cooked through. Serve topped with chopped coriander and some chopped spring onion.
I’ve yet to discover fresh galangal for sale in Auckland (anyone?). A friend has recently sourced me some, from Great Barrier, to attempt growing myself. In the meantime I buy galangal frozen – vacuum-packed – from Asian grocers’. Same goes for lemongrass, that way I have it handy in the freezer, though you can buy fresh lemongrass stalks in some grocers’ and it’s not too hard to grow.
Make the soup vegetarian by simply replacing the stock with a vegetable one and the seafood with tofu and perhaps an extra variety of mushroom.
You can make this soup without coconut milk, it makes a clearer broth with perhaps a slightly sharper flavour. If using coconut milk, one tip I find handy is to freeze leftover coconut milk in an ice cube tray, then transfer to a bag. Then it’s easy to add frozen cubes to curries and soups.