I adore Thai food. I don’t get enough of it and I don’t know a lot about it, but I do love many dishes from Thailand. I wasn’t a big fan of chillies growing up, but later food experiences and lengthy stays in Indonesia and several trips to Thailand, India, Malaysia and South Korea resulted in a love for chillies in my late 20’s and onwards. While I was at Business School in the late 1980’s I had a Thai classmate named Pakorn who first introduced me to “authentic” Thai food. At a small but packed Thai restaurant in Queens, he would take me and other friends to eat a fabulous meal with several courses or dishes. What amazed me was not the individual dishes, one can always remember those and order them again, but instead, it was the pacing of the meal, the hot, the cool, the spicy, sweet, salty and sour… he was a master at balancing the flavors and it always felt like the meal was a carefully conducted orchestra, that resulted in wonderful music… I have never really eaten Thai food again with that “insider track,” despite several months spent in Thailand on business in later years.
Tom (or dtom) Yam Gung is present in menus of almost all Thai restaurants around the world. It is presented almost as we Pinoys might have a sinigang dish on our menus. While the most common version is made with prawns, it can also include fish, squid, etc. But more importantly, it varies almost as much as the number of Thais who cook it. But ultimately, the idea is to have a soup that is SPICY, sour, salty and fragrant. How spicy, sour, salty or fragrant is left up to you. Here is how I make our Tom Yam Gung at home. I have to admit that we sometimes cheat and use those instant Tom Yam gung soup mixes, but if you have the ingredients and want to do the soup from scratch, it is extremely easy to do. And the resulting soup is incredibly satisfying.
First peel and devein 1/2 kilo of medium sized shrimp or prawns (I used the white prawns, though the black tiger prawns will work as well) leaving the tails on. In a small stock pot, add all the prawn heads and shells, rinsed once in water, and cover with about 8 cups of water. Bring this to a boil and when the shells turn orange, mash them up a bit to extract more shrimp flavor. A film of oily residue will form on the foamy surface of the broth, and that is desirable. After about 15 minutes of boiling, pass the soup through a sieve and return the broth to the stock pot. Add about a tablespoon of finely chopped galangal (ginger), three stalks of lemongrass, finely sliced, the roots of two coriander plants (carefully washed beforehand), 6 sliced shallots and let this simmer for a few minutes. Add a substantial splash of thai fish sauce (patis), a pinch of salt, a few small tomatoes (sliced in half if they are a bit large), several sliced straw mushrooms fresh or canned, and simmer a couple of minutes. This should be flavorful at this point, but not overly salty or fragrant yet. Next, add the peeled and rinsed prawns and immediately add 2-3 finely sliced kaffir or makrut lime leaves, 3-5 bird’s eye chillies (siling labuyo, chopped), 4-5 sawtooth coriander leaves, sliced (or wansoy or regular coriander if you don’t have the sawtooth variety) and after a minute or two, serve immediately. When you serve the soup, provide at least a whole dayap so that diners can squeeze as much lime juice into their soup as they desire. You don’t want to cook the lime juice, it’s freshest and more delicious if added at the last moment, when the soup is about to be consumed. Despite the cooking time which is often 15 minutes or less, the soup is incredibly flavorful and utterly satisfying. The key, as in all good Thai food, is in the right balance of flavors and spiciness…