I have had a real craving lately for hot and spicy dishes (no, I am not expecting). I have been trying to eat healthier foods, so sometimes a little spice or heat adds the flavors that I miss from my “usual” cooking. So, I have been going back into the archives to retrieve some oldies and goodies that I knew would satisfy that craving!
I first discovered one of my favorite hot and spicy soups about 6 years ago when we had some friends come to visit us for a weekend. The husband brought all the goodies to cook a Thai dinner for us the first evening. I could not tell you what exactly he cooked for the main dish. I do know that it was some traditional Thai dish and it was made in a wok. I can, however, tell you that he made one awesome Tom Yum Soup that night! It was really off the charts on the hot and spicy meter (we all had beads of perspiration on our foreheads!), and the flavors were fabulous!
I had never had Tom Yum Soup until that weekend. I had my usual Thai favorites that I always ordered out in a restaurant (Pad Thai (naturally), basil rolls, chicken satay, Thai green curry, etc.), but I rarely ordered soup because it is too much food for me with all the rice, etc. But now that I was a devotee, I had to find out what was in this stuff and make it myself! My neighbor actually used a lot of dried ingredients that evening (lemon grass, Thai chilis, etc.) because even a few years back it was far more difficult to locate all the fresh ingredients.
Needless to say, there was some trial and error in the process to find the perfect Tom Yum Soup. At one point I found a pretty decent recipe with all the right flavors, but I still wanted to do better. I even ordered Tom Yum Soup at a few Thai restaurants and felt that they were not all that good. The kick was missing. What I was making at home was far better (so said my hubby). My friend said that he really did not have a particular recipe (just in case you are wondering). He made it a bit different most every time he made it, depending on what ingredients he could find.
Regardless of the recipe, most of them had similar ingredients. And because it was more difficult several years ago for me to find some of the key ingredients, I would chop up lemon grass and freeze it when I did find it so that it would be on hand if I decided I wanted it and it was not available fresh. I did the same with Kaffir lime leaves and galanga root. I would suggest doing that if you happen to come across these things. They last a long time in the freezer and they are key ingredients in so many Thai dishes. I know that it is much easier now to locate specialty items. I am fortunate enough to have an International market not far from home if Whole Foods does not have what I need. However, Murphy’s Law always occurs when you are looking for something and you will not be able to find it, so just freeze it so it is always on hand in case you have the craving (and this soup is something you will crave!).
I finally located the perfect recipe in an older cookbook (1996). The book is The Best of Vietnamese and Thai Cooking by Mai Pham. Her soup is actually called Yummy Hot and Sour Shrimp Soup, but it is definitely identical to Tom Yum Soup if you have ever had it and this is the best recipe I could find years ago. There are many versions of this soup online these days, but I still prefer this one. We also add chicken to the soup (Tom Yum Kai is the same soup base with chicken instead of shrimp). However, we have found that we enjoy it far more with both chicken and shrimp. It also becomes a much heartier soup with both. Here is my adaptation.
Yummy Hot and Sour Soup
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 shallot, sliced
1 tsp. ground chili paste
1 fresh red Thai chili, sliced (discard the seeds if you want less heat)
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil or canola oil
1/2 lb. raw medium shrimp, peeled and rinsed (reserve the shells) – I use more shrimp than the original recipe.
5 cups homemade unsalted or canned low-sodium chicken stock (I use Swanson’s Organic)
1 small skinless, boneless chicken breast, cut into 1/4 strips (optional – see note)
1 stalk lemon grass, cut into 1 inch pieces and bruised with the back of a knife
3 thin slices galanga
3 Kaffir lime leaves
3 Tbsp. fish sauce
1 Tbsp. brown sugar
1/2 cup sliced fresh white mushrooms (or straw mushrooms if you can find them)
2 ripe tomatoes, cut into thin wedges
1/3 cup fresh lime juice
10 fresh Thai basil leaves
5 fresh cilantro springs, chopped
Note – The original recipe does not call for the chicken, but we tried it and enjoyed it with both chicken and shrimp. It you use the chicken, you can cut the shrimp back to 1/3 pound.
* If you cannot find Kaffir lime leaves, you can use a little zest of fresh lime to taste. You can substitute regular basil for the Thai basil, but the soup will have a slightly different flavor. There really is no substitute for galanga root. Apparently, some stores may sell dried pieces, but search for the fresh root if possible.
Place the garlic, shallot, chili paste, chili, cilantro, and peppercorns into a mortar and pound into a paste. (I usually start the mixture in a mini food processor to break it down and then use the mortar and pestle).
Heat the oil in a soup pot over moderate heat. add the shrimp shells and brown until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the spice mixture to the pot and heat until fragrant, about 20 seconds. Add the chicken stock and the chicken pieces (if you are using chicken) and let simmer for 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove the shells and discard.
Add the lemon grass, galanga, lime leaves, fish sauce, brown sugar, mushrooms, and tomatoes and bring to a boil. Add the shrimp and cook until almost done, about 2 minutes. (Shrimp will continue to cook, so do not overcook). Remove from heat and add lime juice, basil and cilantro. Serve piping hot.
This is a wonderfully flavored, hot and sour soup. You can certainly adjust the heat by reducing the amount of fresh chili, chili paste or peppercorns. My hubby likes it really hot, so I prepare it as above. If the fresh chili is small, I will throw the whole thing in, otherwise, I may leave all or some of the seeds out of the soup.
The soup is also filled with all sorts of yummy flavorings that you probably do not want to eat, so you will be fishing out the lemongrass and lime leaf pieces, but it is so worth it! The best version is truly made with all the authentic ingredients, so find them if you can!