Tom Yum Soup, a Thai classic

I miss Thai food. Growing up in Southern California, really good Thai restaurants are everywhere. After a while, you get super spoiled being able to access excellent ethnic food whenever you want.

And then I moved to rural Montana. Oh well, gotta learn how to make Thai food!

After getting my hands on some decent looking lemongrass stalks recently, I decided I really needed to find a Thai tom yum (sweet and sour) soup recipe to use it in. Thus, a hearty thank you to the Food Network for providing the recipe for Araya’s Place Tom Yum Soup which is the closest and fastest I’ve ever gotten to making this dish.

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Minus the lemongrass, there are two other key seasoning ingredients you need:

  • Kaffir lime leaves? Check. Thanks to the stash in my freezer, I have this seasoning on hand.
  • Fresh galangal slices? Well… While I can usually find it at the fancy grocery store in the “big city” more than an hour away, it has a large price tag. While I know ginger is no where near close to a replacement for galangal, I haven’t been able to bring myself to buy the latter! So if you’re a Thai person or have had a lot of access to excellent Thai food, go ahead and slap my wrist. If you haven’t had much Thai food, you won’t know the difference by buying ginger and, frankly, it still tastes pretty doggone good.

Okay — my soap box moment is over.

If you can get your hands on these three key ingredients — lemongrass, keffir lime leaves, and galangal (*ahemorginger*) — make this soup! I was blown away how quickly and easy it comes together. Oh yes, and also I was quite impressed how the seasonings and saltiness where spot on. Usually I have to add more soy sauce or broth powder to be happy about something but the recipe has been perfectly seasoned every time I’ve made it since I discovered it!

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Araya’s Tom Yum Soup

Recipe courtesy of Araya’s Place/Food Network, slight adaptations to original recipe, feeds 2 really hungry people as a main course, feeds 4 as small side soups

INGREDIENTS:

  • 3 cups vegetable broth OR 3 cups water with needed broth seasoning
  • 5 kaffir lime leaves
  • 2 inch piece of unpeeled ginger OR galangal, cut 3 slices vertically or on the diagonal as much as possible
  • 1 lemongrass stalk, cut 3 slices on the diagonal as much as possible
  • 1 cup sliced mushrooms
  • Half a package of tofu (approximately half of a usual 12-14 ounce package), cubed, optional
  • 1 medium tomato, sliced
  • 1/3 medium-sized onion, sliced thinly
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce OR Bragg’s Liquid Aminos
  • Juice from 1 lime OR 1-2 tablespoons bottled lime juice, to taste
  • Sriracha to taste OR 10 Thai chili peppers, pounded with the edge of a knife or cooking mallet to release the flavor
  • Scant 1/4 cup roughly chopped cilantro
  • Scant 1/4 cup roughly chopped green onions

DIRECTIONS:

In a medium saucepan, bring the vegetable broth to a boil. Once boiling, add the lime leaves, galangal and lemongrass and boil for 5 minutes.

Add the mushrooms, tofu, tomato, onion, soy sauce, lime juice, and Sriracha/Thai chili peppers and boil for another 5 minutes.

Garnish with cilantro and green onions.

NOTE: You don’t eat the lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, or ginger! If you want to be nice, pull them out before serving; otherwise, pull them out or avoid them while eating.

Recipe Notes:

  • Once in a while, I actually have vegetable broth on hand. More often than not, I use mushroom seasoning (I like the kind made by Po Lo Ku Trading the most) or some sort of vegetable broth powder/seasoning with water.
  • As I mentioned above, galangal and ginger are not the same thing and a traditionalist would be so mad at me for suggesting substitution with ginger! On the other hand, if you can’t find galangal, then ginger will have to do. As Wikipedia says, “While ginger tastes a little like galangal, most cooks who use both rhizomes would never substitute one for the other and expect the same flavor.”
  • When it comes to the main ingredients that provide the bulk to the soup (i.e. mushrooms and tofu), you’re aiming for roughly 2 cups total. Sometimes when we’ve ordered tom yum soup, we’ve asked for more vegetables and they’ll be creative and put in all sorts of things: baby corn, carrots, broccoli, bean sprouts, bok choy, etc. Use your imagination! I would recommend limiting it to 2-2.5 cups total otherwise trying to cook this soup will be similar to trying to roll up an overstuffed burrito.
  • We have cherry tomatoes on hand more than the usual sized tomatoes. I grab a handful and cut them in halves or thirds.
  • We bought a mandoline some time ago and it comes in super handy for thinly slicing onions! If you don’t have a mandoline, you’ll be fine, just cut them as thin carefully.
  • Obviously fresh lime juice is best, although bottled lime juice is a reasonable substitute. If you have bottled juice, I’d start with 1 tablespoon and work your way up from there to taste.
  • Okay, I truly NEVER have Thai chili peppers here…so any kind of Asian-like added heat works fine! Sriracha is my asian hot sauce of choice and I was pleasantly surprised. I probably use about a 1/2 tablespoon.

Easy Weekday Thai Curry

Being of Indonesian-Dutch descent, I grew up with our family going to asian restaurants a lot: Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, the rare Indonesian spot.  My mom seemed to like Thai restaurants the best because, according to her, the spice palate used is most similar to an Indonesian one, at least when compared to other asian cuisines.

Thus said, since Indonesian food is so hard to come by in the States, I’ve learned to love Thai food.  Adore it.  I’d be willing to travel to Thailand just to eat street food with a small handful of Cipro in my back pocket.  (Just in case!)

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Before I finally found out what pad thai was really supposed to taste like, I enjoyed Thai curries the most.  I thought making the paste by hand from scratch was the key–though after talking to Thai friends, they always asked, “Why?  The store-bought kind is just as good–that’s what I use.”  Though even after buying paste, my curry attempts never seemed to have the right flavor: too spicy, not spicy enough, under flavored, I’d even add lemon grass and kaffir lime leaves to no avail, etc.  

Finally years and years later after my first curry trial, I decided to actually read the paste label for once.  It said something about adding brown sugar.

Huh.

Whaddaya know, I tried adding a little brown sugar, and…it finally tasted amazing.

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I don’t have a recipe for Thai curry, really.  My method is more like a bunch of guidelines.  We bought one of those huge containers of yellow curry paste recently.  I’m also a fan of red and green curry.  Well, all Thai curries.  If I have several pastes on hand, I pick whichever one that seems to call out to me that day.

Also, I’m rather untraditional about my curry ingredients.  I think it’s a great weekday dish because it helps me clean out the fridge.  Is that broccoli/cauliflower/[insert vegetable] I see back there?  Let’s throw it in!  or I only have a couple handfuls or spinach left, might as well use it up!

What is most important to me is getting the flavor right (ahem–brown sugar).  Oh, well, and as long as you don’t use a vegetable that really does not belong in curry like okra or beets.

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Weekday Curry

Recipe Notes:

  • I usually like to use potatoes, mushrooms, and/or tofu as the base ingredients.  In the curry in made last night, I just had potatoes.  As for the vegetables to be added later?  Use your imagination!
  • I’ve been steering away from sautéing with oil; rather, I pour a small glass or so of water in the pan, cover it, and bring it up to a vigorous boil to cook the base ingredients.  Keep your eye on the pan, though–add more water when you need it!
  • I tend to cook the base ingredients with water and a little curry paste to begin with.  When they’re done, I add in coconut milk and start to season the curry before adding the rest of the vegetables to be cooked.
  • For my usual huge batch of curry, I use a whole can of (not low-fat) coconut milk.  If I need more “broth”?  Then I just add more water instead of opening up another can of milk.
  • When I’m seasoning the curry, I have the following on hand: curry paste, salt (or mushroom seasoning, my usual salt replacement), and brown sugar.  I add curry paste until I feel like the spices are enough.  Then, the salt to taste.  Lastly, since I make a large batch of curry, I start with 1-2 spoons of brown sugar.  Taste the curry and add more if you need–you’ll know when it’s just right!  Sometimes I go back and forth and add more paste or salt as needed.  If the curry spice is too much, you can thin it out with more coconut milk or water.
  • I’m sure you could use something other than brown sugar as a sweetener.  Even regular sugar or agave nectar should work.
  • Make sure to add your ingredients to the pot according to how long it will take for them to cook, otherwise you’ll end up with some as mushy and others too firm.  Last night, for example, I had potatoes, green beans, bell peppers, onion, cabbage, and kale.  I cooked the potatoes with water and curry paste first, then added the green beans when the former was almost done.  The bell pepper and onion just needs to sit in the warmth for a few minutes, so those went in after the coconut milk and initial seasoning was done.  Since the cabbage and kale don’t take much heat to be cooked, I threw them in last and folded them in under low heat for a minute or two.
  • If you like garnishings, I’ve used green onions, cilantro, or even fried shallots/onions before.

IMG_1641When I think back upon my early curry attempts, I now can easily see my mistake.  Thai flavors always come in pairs or more: if a dish is salty, it is balanced out by something sweet; if it’s spicy, then sour is usually involved; when making pad Thai, all four flavors surprisingly come together.

Though in the case of making good curry, don’t forget to add the brown sugar.