The weather in Bangkok this week has been so thoroughly delightful that the guards outside our building have been wearing coats. Legit, long-sleeve, undeniable…coats. Coats around here only indicate that it’s dropped below 70 degrees Fahrenheit, but nevertheless, it has been glorious to be outside.
In every country I have visited, there is a dish that you do well to learn to love. When I lived in Romania, that dish was mici – small, oval patties of meat that were cooked on a grill. You had better tell everyone you meet there just how much you love mici or you’re in trouble. In Thailand, that dish may very well be Tom Yam Gung. But it is, in fact, a soup that is hard not to love (as long as you are up for some spice).
Tom Yam Gung is not really Tom Yam Gung without the spice, but neither Frank or I ever seem able to resist its siren call. At the Thai level of heat, we alternate between looks of happy satisfaction and frantic grabs for the nearest bowl of rice. Fortunately, when made at home, you have a bit more control.
To give the aromatics a head start, you begin by dry roasting them (galangal, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves) in the pan. All those intense smells come out in a burst of warm, fresh deliciousness. Releasing these bold flavors right at the start means that the soup does not need to simmer for long, and the vegetables don’t turn into a soggy, flavorless mess.
Next, in goes the broth, followed by the vegetables and seasoning.
And finally, the shrimp, cooked just until pink. Then the heat gets turned off and a healthy dose of fresh lime juice gets added in. By this point, the kitchen smells like an authentic Thai restaurant, even though the soup took less than 20 minutes to prepare.
The color of the finished soup sometimes varies, but the chili paste usually results in a bright red. A perfect color for a spicy soup, don’t you think?
Spicy Prawn Soup (Tom Yam Gung)
- 1-4 bird’s eye chilis, to taste (optional)
- 3 stalks lemongrass, each cut into 3 large pieces
- 2 tsp. galangal, finely chopped
- 5 kaffir lime leaves, thinly sliced
- 4 cups low-sodium chicken stock
- 2 Tbsp. thai chili paste
- 1 Tbsp. fish sauce
- 1/3 cup green onions (white and green parts), cut in 1/2-inch pieces
- 1/2 cup straw or white mushrooms, halved
- 3 large red chili peppers, cut in 1/2 inch slices
- 1/2 large red pepper, chopped (optional)
- 1/2 large onion, chopped (optional)
- 20 shrimp, peeled and de-veined, but with tails intact
- soy sauce, to taste
- 2 Tbsp. lime juice
- cilantro leaves for garnish (optional)
- Using pestle (from mortar and pestle) or a meat tenderizer, smash the bird’s eye chilis and lemongrass to open them up. In a wok or soup pot over medium-high heat, dry-sauté chilis, lemongrass, galangal and kaffir lime leaves, stirring constantly until aromatic, about a minute. Add stock, chili paste and fish sauce and bring to a boil.
- Add green onions, mushrooms, chili peppers, red peppers and onion (if using) and shrimp. Continue to boil soup until shrimp are pink and cooked through, about 5 minutes. Taste soup and add soy sauce to increase saltiness, if needed.
- Remove from heat and add lime juice, stirring to combine. Serve immediately, topped with cilantro leaves.