As of yesterday at noon, I was about 97% sure I was going forward in Project Food Blog, the contest I entered over at Foodbuzz. So sure, in fact, that I went ahead and made a recipe for Challenge #2, which asked participants to re-create an ethnic classic, an archetypal dish from an unfamiliar culinary tradition.
Except I didn’t advance to the next round. Well.
I was going to scrap this post altogether (maybe give you the perfect pizza dough I’ve been wanting to share) but I realized the only thing between you lovely people and this lovely soup was my vanity. (I know. So Buddhist of me. Going ego-free today.) Instead I’ll scrap my elaborate gambit of honeymooning in Thailand, my discovery of the fiery wonders of tom yum goong, and just cut to the chase. (I’ll leave the pictures, though. It was such a fabulous trip.)
I’ll fast forward a bit and share with you that I don’t cook Asian food very often, and Southeast Asian food rarer still. The only thing I’ve ever put in my bamboo steamer is asparagus (finished with vinaigrette, natch) and I’ve had an unopened bottle of fish sauce in my pantry for about five years. (Fish sauce can’t go bad, right?)
My explanation: there’s terrific sushi in San Francisco, rock-solid pho, an awesome Burmese place, a shrine to Shanghai soup dumplings, a bahn mi miracle and a lovely Cambodian eatery run by the nicest family this side of Siem Reap. (That’s to say nothing of our Chinatown, one of the largest in the United States.) I stick with my Cal-Med repertoire at home and I go out for Asian deliciousness. I leave it to the pros.
Of course, if I’m honest with myself, I know I haven’t really tried my hand at Asian cooking because I find it intimidating. (I am getting good at this Buddhism stuff!) Thai food in particular seems rather tricky. The precarious balance of all those punchy, noisy flavors: salty, sweet, sour, spicy, bitter. The unfamiliar delicacies (well hello there, pickled quail eggs and deep-fried crickets) and Dr. Seuss-ian tropical produce (see: galangal, durian, rambutan, mangosteen). But remembering back to my honeymoon (oh, here we go again), those delicate seafoods wrapped up in banana leaves like a birthday present, or the riot of textures and flavors, color and heat in Bangkok’s incredibly abundant street food, how we ate so well that after our meals my face hurt from smiling, I’ve got to at least try, right?
So I found a place to start, that very first dish I had in Thailand: soup. I can do soup.
I emailed the charming staff at the Sarojin resort in Khao Lak, where we stayed, to see if their chefs would share their recipe for tom yum goong, a rightly famous dish featuring prawns in an aromatic, hot and sour broth. (The Thai people are famous the world over for their good humor and hospitality, and the folks at the Sarojin are no exception, even three years after our visit: a few hours later, I had a cordial note and the recipe in my inbox.)
After an hour wandering aimlessly through an Asian supermarket in the Sunset district (gorgeous seafood, by the way) and one quick spin around the friendly if dimly lit Battambang Market (keffir lime leaves and bird’s eye chilies, check) I was ready to roll. Sort of.
It takes a certain amount of gumption, or maybe just practice, to look a pile of prawns in their beady little eyes and just whack, chop, off with their heads. (I don’t care if they were already dead, those things looked alive. Twice I knocked an antennae, thought the shrimp were moving and had to steady myself all over again.) If you can get past that (well, and squashing their decapitated heads to squish out the good stuff for your stock), you’ll be fine. Just keep in mind that there’s a knock-your-socks-off soup on the other side of the carnage.
I ended up with a “clear-your-sinuses” level of spice, but as that’s terribly subjective, feel free to adjust as you see fit. Aim for a good balance of flavors and then serve with extra fish sauce, chilies, nam prik pao, lime juice and cilantro to let your guests tailor their soup to their tastebuds. (In case it’s way too spicy for you right out of the gate, add coconut milk to dial down the heat; your soup is now tom yum nam khon.) Thais leave the aromatics in their soup, so you’ll want to eat around the galangal (a knobby cousin of ginger), lemongrass and keffir lime leaves.
So let’s wrap this up, shall we?
I’m still a ways off from pickling quail eggs, but I’ve certainly been emboldened to try making other Thai dishes at home, especially when they’re as intensely flavorful, as curative-as-chicken-noodle and surprisingly quick to pull together as tom yum goong. And as for contests, well, I think we’re done for a little while.
But hey, silver lining: I picked up a few new readers (welcome, guys!) and I learned how to make this gorgeous soup, which is now firmly in my index of faves. Win!
- 4 C water or low-sodium chicken stock
- 12 ounces medium shrimp (30-40 count size), heads and shells intact
- 4 keffir lime leaves
- 1 stalk lemongrass
- 1″ piece galangal, peeled (see note)
- 1 1/2 oz straw, enoki or oyster mushrooms
- 3 shallots
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 Tbsp nam prik pao (Thai roasted chili paste)
- 1 Tbsp Thai fish sauce
- 3 Tbsp lime juice
- 6 cherry tomatoes
- 6 bird’s eye chilies
- 1 1/2 tsp sugar
- cilantro, chopped or whole sprigs for garnish
- salt, to taste
- coconut milk (optional)
Cut off the heads of each shrimp and place in a medium-sized pot. (They’re not looking at you, even if it feels that way.) Grasping the tail, make a snapping motion to crack the shell; remove and put any large pieces of shell in the soup pot, leaving the tail on. With a paring knife, devein the shrimp under cool running water.
Put the water or stock in the pot and bring to a boil, smushing the shrimp heads with a wooden spoon to release the orange fat; this gives the soup its distinctive flavor. Bring to a boil and simmer until reduced by 1 cup. Strain solids and discard; return stock to the soup pot.
Peel the outer layers of the lemongrass and discard. Cut the stalk into 1″ pieces. With the back of a wooden spoon, pound the garlic, lemongrass and bird chilies to release their flavors. Cut peeled galangal into 4 slices. “Bruise” the kaffir leaves by crinkling and curling to release the oils. Wedge the shallots. Add all to the stock. Add the mushrooms, fish sauce, chili paste and sugar. Bring to a simmer. Add lime juice. Taste to make sure the flavors are balanced (tart, spicy, sweet, salty) and adjust as needed. Add shrimp and cook until just pink and curled in.
Immediately take off heat, and transfer to soup bowls. Garnish with cilantro. Serve with extra nam prik pao, limes, Sriracha sauce, chilis and coconut milk.
Note: at the market, look for galangal that’s ivory colored, firm and unwrinkled. Bird’s eye chilies have slightly less heat than your average habanero or scotch bonnet; adjust to your taste or substitute other chili peppers as needed. There’s heat in the roasted chili paste as well, so milder palates might want to ease into the nam prik pao.