This hearty take on tom yum soup may be one of the best soups you’ll ever make. It might not be ‘authentically’ like a serving in Thailand, its home country. But, finish a big bowl and don’t be surprised if you’re desperately hoping for another one.
The tom yum twist
I seem to keep doing this. Turning what most often gets classed as a starter into a main course. Yet here’s a tom yum soup recipe that’s so good I reckon it also deserves centre stage. Maybe just served with some plain boiled rice as a foil to its pretty fearsome heat.
Tom yum soup is typically associated with Thailand. I’ve eaten variants of it in Malaysia and in numerous Chinese restaurants in the form of not-so-very-different hot and sour soups. Spicy, sweet, and sour all in one go.
The many bowls of tom yum I delightedly devoured in Thailand were fully intended by their cooks to be starters or maybe a light lunch. It was an intensely but multi-flavored hot broth with very few ‘bulk’ items added to it. Certainly some pieces of aromatic lemongrass and finely chopped chilies. Maybe a couple or so small prawns (shrimp), perhaps some slivers of chicken and a few bright green leaves of bok choy.
I was so impressed by this soup that I went into a central Bangkok supermarket in search of ‘tom yum’ stock cubes. I’d heard from someone that they were available. My thinking was it would be grand to take a few back to London so I could make my now hands-down favorite soup at home. After a bit of an amusing exchange with some eager-to-help store staff, I was led to the right shelf. Great!
I won’t mention the brand name, nor should I. They were dreadful. Maybe I didn’t understand how to dissolve a stock cube. Perhaps I was using too little, or too much water, or too hot or too cold. Maybe the cubes got airsick on the trip back to Heathrow? Anyway, I won’t be doing that again… Thankfully, now I don’t need to.
The flavors come together
And neither will you. In fact, all the shellfish flavor you need in the broth comes from the way you treat the prawns. The chili peppers (Thai peppers here) and lemongrass add their distinct flavor layers as do palm sugar, lime juice, and a few of that fruit’s leaves. And finally there’s that galangal, a root spice from the ginger family. Galangal is sure authentic, but ginger is a fine substitute.
Whenever I ate tom yum soup lookalike versions in Malaysia it was more substantial – almost like a light stew – with far more shrimp, chicken, and choy. That’s the way I prefer it, transformed into a main. I’m hoping you do too.
Now, this more heavily laden version of tom yum might not win the ‘authentic’ prize in some food-purist circles. But its roots are definitely in the right place. And it’s moreish-ly delicious. What else matters?
Hearty Tom Yum Soup
- 6 red Thai Bird’s Eye chilies finely diced, seeds and all
- 18 ounces medium-sized prawn tails de-veined and shell on
- 9 ounces chicken breast skinless, boneless, and sliced into ribbons about 2 inches long and a ¼ inch thick
- 4 cloves garlic peeled and finely diced
- 2 teaspoons galangal peeled and finely diced. If you can’t find galangal, use ginger in the same amount
- 2 stalks lemongrass each about six inches long. Get some crush onto the stalks by smacking them a few times with the back of a heavy knife. Then cut the stalks into two-inch lengths
- 10 lime leaves roughly torn into ½-inch pieces
- 2 tablespoons palm sugar chop the solid sugar into pieces so it’ll dissolve easily
- 3 tablespoons fish sauce
- 4 heads bok choy closely trimmed of their root-base, sliced into three lengthways and then cut into 1½-inch sections
- 3 pints water
- 1/4 cup fresh lime juice approximately the juice of two limes
- 4 tablespoons salted butter
- 1 teaspoon sea salt this is to taste. You might find the fish sauce has added enough saltiness for your liking
- handful chopped cilantro
- 9 ounces basmati rice
Partly cooking the prawns – hot and fast in butter
- Melt the butter in a big skillet over high heat. As it starts to foam, add all the prawns and fry for 90 seconds before turning them and frying for another hot 90 seconds. Take the skillet off the heat and remove the prawns – they’ll be joining the soup’s broth toward the end of its cooking. You’ll also be de-glazing the skillet with a little of the broth to capture every last drop of that prawn-shell flavor.
Cooking the rice
- Best here to follow the instructions on the packet and cook for maybe a couple minutes longer to achieve a slight stickiness. Once it’s cooked, put it into a warmed serving bowl, cover it and put the bowl into a very low oven. Maybe with a good lump of butter on top to slowly melt into the rice.
Cooking the broth
- Fill a good-sized pot with the water and set it on a high heat. Add the chilies, lemongrass, garlic, galangal, lime leaves, palm sugar, lime juice, and fish sauce. Bring the pot to the boil and then immediately turn the heat to low so that it runs at a gentle simmer for fifteen minutes. Lemongrass is a pretty woody, fibrous plant and this simmering is needed to bring out its scented flavor. It will also soften the lime leaves.
- After that simmering, taste the broth to check if it’s salty enough. The natural salinity of the fish sauce might have done the trick, but if not, add some ground sea salt to taste. It’s now that I’m also looking to rate the broth’s chili-heat. If it’s lacking some punch in that department, add some more diced Thai peppers. Hot. It’s gotta be hot.
Finishing the tom yum
- Keep the pot on a low heat and add the thinly sliced ribbons of chicken breast to the simmering broth. Let it simmer away for two minutes before adding the sliced bok choy. Stir the pot and let it all cook for another two minutes.
- Whilst that’s happening, use a few tablespoons of the hot broth to de-glaze the prawns’ skillet and then add all that liquid to the simmering pot. No stock cube required.
- Now add all the prawns and their plate-juices. Turn the heat under the pot to high. As soon as the broth starts to boil, turn off the heat and stir in the finely chopped cilantro.
- Let the tom yum soup sit for a minute before giving it a final stir and serving it in big, warmed soup bowls, with the sticky rice in small bowls on the side.