Kaeng Thom Yam

February 4, 2008 at 1:06 AM (animals, chiles and other capsicums, dishes by cuisine, dishes by main ingredient, Thailand/ Issarn/ Laos, vegetables/ fruits)


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:

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.



  1. bee said,

    i adore this soup. it is my fav too. we made it recently. gotta make it again.

    You DO have good taste!

  2. vimmi said,

    oh the soup looks amazing. got to try this soon.

    Thanks, and yes, you must!

  3. musy said,

    Thom yum is one really yumm inducing soup 🙂

    The best part in your recipe description:

    “*10-40 thinly-sliced red chiles” 😀

    Hehehehe…I put in 12…enough for occasional little “wake-ups” bites while eating. 🙂

  4. Anita said,

    And where am I supposed to add that fish stock I am stocking? 😀 I’ll need more stock in any case – I have just 1 C. It is going to be vegetable stock though – bird flu scare has arrived…

    And that is a killer looking soup. That tureen with the chimney – maybe it warns about the fire within…

    That it does! It is also used for thom ka gai BTW…sorry to hear about the flu scare! I am so not up on news. Yep…vegetable stock- even kabuli chane stock works well I think.

  5. musy said,

    Only 12 chillies? Come on Pel, you can do better 😀

    I could…. it’s always an option. 😀

  6. shilpa said,

    Ohh that picture looks super cool. I love it. 10-40 thinly sliced chilies..oh my god….

    Yeah, it’s traditionally quite spicy…but mild is good too. Thanks for the compliment!

  7. Manisha said,

    All that hullabaloo about 1C of fish stock‽ 1C‽ Precious freezer space‽ 1C‽

    (pls note judicious use of space on the real estate of this blog by way of interrobangs.)

    Oh yeah, I see ’em now! 🙂 One cup….she’d be better off using it for a pilaf…or for a new flavour in tea-making! 😀 Thankfully I was nudged to make this anyway- I love it so and hadn’t had any in sooooo long, so I can’t be annoyed! 🙂

  8. Anita said,

    It’s concentrated.

    And how can we, lesser mortals, use this new punctuation, O Learned One?

    Oh…so then there will be enough stock! and then you might want a fish to go with it… 🙂

  9. Cynthia said,

    Just reading this has awakened my tastebuds.

    More like rips off the covers and tosses them out of bed! 😉

  10. Anita said,

    Thank you for this timely recipe, Pel. Soul food. I was lucky to find some chicken bones (wings, neck, etc.) as well in the nooks and crannies of my freezer while I was fishing out the fish stock…and put in everything you had in yours, except for the final garnish of 40 sliced red chilles. 😀

    Wow…you duplicated my veggie mix?!!!! I love how sweet the tomatoes taste against the gravy/broth! Glad you enjoyed it…it IS the “sister” soup- both have been served in EVERY Thai restaurant I’ve ever been to- of thom kha gai- which you have already made!

    Oh, and no…I used only 12! 40 was suggested by a few different Thai cookbook authors as “very hot for masochist diners…”

  11. Vickie said,

    Thanks so much for the most thorough account of the recipe I have ever seen. Some of the ingredients I have here in my garden in SouthEast Texas specifically with this soup in mind! A word in support of this wonderful dish. There has been a stomach bug going around that leaves one with severe indigestion weeks after. NOTHING helped until I stopped by our only Thai restaurant here and bought some soup. It cured me! Wonderful stuff. Have you got a recipe for authentic Larb Gai?

    Chicken larb/laab eh? I think I have several…and all of them leave out some of the key herbs in the authentic Viet dish; of course, since the dish- made with beef or chicken- is so popular throughout SE Asia, there are many variations with local twists. I’ll keep this dish in mind.

    Thanks for the lovely compliment, and as well for sharing the cure-all properties. I would assign the glory to galanga, which shares many of the same GI tract-regulating strengths of its close relative, ginger.

  12. Anita said,

    Stopped by to check on the vegetables you used since I am planning to make it again this week. But the vegetable pickings are slim right now – no carrots. You think yellow pumpkin might work? …(button) mushrooms I should be able to get. I’ll let youknow how the pumpkin turned out 😀 .

    Yes, please do….any seasonal veggies can be used; just keep in mind the cooking times of each and group them accordingly to add at an appropriate time. You can see why bamboo and rattan-shoots are so popular! 😉

  13. Anita said,

    Ok – so this time I had pumpkin, tomatoes, spring onion greens, green bell pepper, cucumber (!), just water – no stock 😦 . Missed the chicken some, but yum nonetheless. In the very least I should have stepped out and bought some mushrooms…but it is Sunday, and I am lazy 😀 . Soba noodles (handful) did provide some texture though.

    Remarkably flexible isn’t it?

  14. These are a few of my new favourite things…. « A Mad Tea Party said,

    […] (Elaichi et Cetera) scintillating Thai soup Kaeng Thom Yam, and Nam Prik Pao, the secret paste behind […]

  15. medicine said,

    this kaeng look delicius

    • elaichietcetera said,

      Kon khun krab…

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