Tom Yum Goong (Thai Spicy Prawn Soup)

Monday, July 25, 2011

 Savour it hot.
(Note: I have updated the recipe - read this)

I have been hoping to write up a recipe on Tom Yum Soup, a thought which I had already mentioned in the first article of this blog.

Last Sunday, as usual, I was reading and enjoying Christopher Tan's "Ask a Foodie" column. I nodded in agreement when I read his article on making a good Tom Yum. You can find out more about Chris' work here. And this morning, I read in the papers that it is no 7 on CNN list of the world's 50 most delicious food.

I have always been fascinated by a good bowl of Tom Yum Soup. While on my honeymoon in Phuket 18 years ago, I enjoyed a bowl of Tom Yum Goong with steamed rice. That experience has never left me. The problem is that most of the variations of Tom Yum which I had since were less than satisfying. These variations always seem to have so much in them that they crowd out the real Tom Yum, leaving only faint echoes of the one I had.

I reckoned that I simply needed to demystify this dish myself if I want to have it on my table. When I was in Banchang last year (an hour's drive from Bangkok), I visited the local wet market. It was very clean and the herbs and spices were displayed neatly. I saw many packets of the "Tom Yum trio" and I bought a bagful. That began a series of experiments before I got it right. It would have helped if I had a copy of The Principles of Thai Cookery by Chef McDang then or read this article by Chris Tan.

I made it again today. I have been having a cold for more than a week now. When your nose is stuffed up, nothing like a good Tom Yum Soup to clear the sinuses. The recipe is actually quite simple.

The trio of herbs at the heat of Tom Yum: Lemon grass, Thai galangal and kaffir lime leaves
This soup consists of these main ingredients:

1. Stock: this can be any kind of meat or seafood.
2. Trio of herbs - lemon grass, galangal (blue ginger) and kaffir lime leaves, 
3. Spices: chillies, fish sauce, lime juice (or tamarind)
4. Condiments: prawns, meat, straw mushrooms or bamboo shoots - stuff you chew on when slurping the soup. Unless you are a cow, you leave the herbs alone.  

Thai green chillies
This soup is basically an infusion. The heart of it is the trio of herbs (see main photo). You are using the herbs the way you use your tea leaves - for infusion. To impart scent. You do not need to boil the life out of the herbs in the same way you do when making stock out of meat.

If you can, get hold of fresh ones. Get the Thai version of galangal which is smaller and thinner (see photo) and has a more fragrant and less bitter taste cf to the Malaysian version which is larger (and also looks hideous). As for Kaffir lime leaves, I have found the Thai ones to be more fragrant and the colour slightly lighter green. You can get this at Golden Mile Complex.

As for the stock, I prefer using prawns. Just boil the shells. I prefer to blend the heads and shells using a stick blender. This part is very similar to how I prepare my Prawn Mee. Alternatively, you can press the heads with a potato ricer. Now, if you can lay your hands on Freshwater Prawns (see some pics here), this flavourful prawn, especially if caught wild, can just be added whole to the soup before you serve. But since we do not have them here, squeezing the life out of the normal prawns is the way to go.

I would normally use bamboo shoots, which goes well with the soup. I will try out the fresh straw mushrooms as suggested by Chris. As for fish sauce, I like the Vietnamese variety, which is fragrant and less salty.

Ok, let's go. As usual, use this recipe as a guide. Don't follow strictly. 

Tom Yum Goong (Thai Spicy Prawn Soup) Recipe 
Download printable recipe in PDF format here.
Serves 6

Preparing the Stock

½ kilo
8 bowls

1.      Peel and devein. Set aside the meat.
2.      Heat up the water in a pot and boil the heads and shells for 10 minutes
3.      Strain the stock
boiled bamboo shoots
straw mushrooms
lemon grass (bruised)
kaffir lime leaves
chili padi
thai lime (large variety)
fish sauce
palm sugar

16 slices
2 stalks
6 pieces

4.      Add the sliced bamboo shoots and mushrooms to the stock. Continue to simmer for about 1 minute.
5.      Add the herbs to the soup.
6.      Finish the taste with fish sauce, lime juice and palm sugar.
7.      Add prawn meat. After 30 secs, switch off the fire. Serve in bowls immediately, garnished with cilantro or mint leaves.

As you can see, you just need to be organised and prepare the steps beforehand. If you infuse the herbs for too long, the taste will get bitter or too intense. I like the fresh lime taste that hits your face as you drink the soup and so, I add them at the last step, into the bowls, not the pot.

Don't overcook the prawns.You can cook and serve this just before the meal, If your stock is already prepared, you need only about 5 minutes to prepare and serve. Another way to approach it is this: prepare everything else in the pot. When you are about to serve, add the trio of herbs, prawn meat and lime. There are alternative ways to make it once you understand this infusion concept.

There was once when I used bottled calamansi, and that was disastrous as it was too intense and lacked the fragrance of the fresh Thai limes. On another occasion, I added squid. I was clumsy and as the heads were not cut out or washed properly, the soup quickly turned black. I learnt then that the soup needs to look as appetizing as it tastes and most of it was wasted as none in my family wanted Black Inked Tom Yum. Neither did I.

Tom Yum Goong is best enjoyed accompanied by steamed rice. It can also be a starter soup. It is best savored in individual bowls rather than served along with the rest of the dishes as is normally done on family tables. This is just a matter of preference.

Get the basics right - appreciate the fresh taste of the trio of herbs -  and you can experiment with other meats/veg but never crowd out the taste of the trio. Try adding squid, scallops or fish. You can opt to make a more intense stock. I also like to add a bit of chicken stock or bullion when finishing the soup. I sometimes use more prawns (especially when you blend the shells and heads) for a more prawny stock. The prawn based stock goes very well with the herby trio and if prawns are cheap and aplenty where you are, no reason why you should not be more generous with the use of prawns. You can use the heads and shells of 1 kilo of small to medium size prawns, and keep the meat for use in other dishes. Then use large prawn meat to serve. I sometimes do this if I am serving guests.

And don't even try to pair it with wine.

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  1. I certainly agree that a nice bowl of tom yam should be clear and appetizing. I like only prawns and straw mushrooms. Too many other meats will spoil the simplicity and tastiness of the soup. Had attempted this soup some years but the Food Canon's beautiful photos and presentation makes me want to try it straightaway. Thank you