This is a post for one of my all-time, most-favorite “soups” in the whole world, most often referred to simply as “thom yam”… The name literally means a stew of boiled salad, but in American Thai restaurants it is most often labeled as “Thai lemongrass soup” or “Thai hot-and-sour soup”, both of which are apt descriptions as it does make use of a good amount of lemongrass, and it is indeed hot and sour.
While usually served in these restaurants as a first course, in Thailand it is often served in a special ring-shaped tureen fitted about a central, heated chimney. This keeps it piping hot throughout the meal, as, instead of being a separate course (traditionally in Thailand all dishes are served at once), it is sipped and nibbled upon throughout the meal, each diner taking ladlesful whenever one fancies, as a sort of recourse of lightness to play against “heavier”, coconut-milk-based stews. But of course it is also a great one-dish meal for lunches- or any other time something easy on digestion is desired. It is even served with rice noodles- instead of rice- to Bangkok’s lunching and late-night crowds. Add to this great adaptability the nearly endless variety of vegetables and/or meats that it can be cooked with, and it is then that one realizes part of the reason for its remarkable popularity at home and abroad.
Because of this nature, an exact recipe is somewhat difficult to communicate (though there are many written, of course). I find it easier to keep a “loose” recipe handy, mostly a guide for flavouring the broth, and add amounts of meat or fish and vegetables that I find convenient and have on hand. When choosing and arranging vegetables for cooking, keep in mind how long each takes to cook until heated through, but still retaining some crispness (not soft). Seafood of various kinds (especially shrimp- known as thom yam goong) is by far the most popular choice, but chicken and duck are also popular, and I have also heard of using pork or beef, balls of minced meats or seafood, and certainly there exist vegetarian versions.
In my latest rendition, I chose to use chicken (thom yam gai): I poached about 3 pounds, in water to cover, along with bruised coriander-roots, garlic, black peppercorns, and a little salt, for one hour; removed the meat from the bones and set it aside while I returned the scraps- snapping all bones in half- to boil for three more hours to achieve a good, rich stock. This was strained and allowed to cool, at which time I skimmed off and discarded most of the fat. I was left with about 2 quarts (8 cups) of stock, to which I added the following:
- 4 stalks of lemongrass (takrai)- dry, outer leaves removed; each stalk cut into 2″-3″ segments
- 1″ galanga (kha), unpeeled, thinly-sliced in rounds
- 20 sprigs/stems of cilantro (pak chee)- stems only, cut across into 1/2″ pieces; (set the whole leaves aside for the final garnishing)
- 12 lime leaves (bai magrut), twist each leaf to tear, leaving central stem intact
Allow this to simmer gently, covered, for 20-30 minutes; then add:
- 4 T fish water/sauce (nam pla)
- salt to taste
I had two bowls of vegetables arranged thus:
First bowl: 1 carrot, sliced; 2-3 C straw mushrooms, halved; 1 1/2 C green jackfruit, cut into bite-sized pieces.
Second bowl: 1 bunch of scallions/green onions, sliced into 2″ lengths on a diagonal; 3 roma tomatoes, diced into bite-sized chunks; 1 sweet yellow bell-pepper/capsicum, cut into 3/4″ squares.
Almost any vegetables of your choice can be used. I just have this “thing” about my thom yam containing mushrooms (of any kind!) and tomatoes…a preference if you will. My straw mushrooms and green jackfruit were both canned, so really the only vegetable I needed to be concerned with was the carrots, and these were so thinly-sliced that a brief, 4-5 minutes was all that was necessary. Raw, ripe fruits are also lovely used here- pineapple being exceptional!
So, bowl 1 was added, then a few minutes later bowl 2 was added, along with my cooked chicken which was also torn into bite-size pieces previously. I kept the heat on just until everything was heated through. Here in America, the bourgeois middle-class insist upon boneless, skinless chicken breast for everything, so, if you like, use this- thinly-sliced- instead of the stock-making meat. If you use shrimp (or other seafood), keep in mind that it takes only 1-2 minutes to cook, so add it at the appropriate interval during your vegetable “line-up”. Also, it seems to be common when cooking the seafood versions to use a mixture of chicken and seafood stock, but certainly this isn’t a rule, as I have seen recipes using pure shrimp stock.
At whatever point you add meat/seafood, this is the time to add:
- 2-4 T nam prik pao– to taste
This is the lovely, oily red paste which forms a red-tinged haze over the surface- one of the “chile-waters” in fact- that is a signature touch for this dish. When the vegetables and meat are done to your liking, season the stew with:
- 6 T lime juice
- some sugar, preferrably palm (I use about 1 t…but most Bangkokians prefer it much sweeter)
- and check for salt level
Then scatter over the top:
- the reserved cilantro leaves from above, and
- 10-40 thinly-sliced red chiles
Serve- with or without rice or noodles.
Note: the pieces of lemongrass and lime leaves are not meant to be eaten; instead, these are set aside as one encounters them.