Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Tom Yum Goong - Thai Hot and Sour Soup

Visit any Thai restaurant and the first thing you should order is the traditional Thai hot and sour soup, also known as Tom Yum Goong. It is a shrimp/seafood-based soup that contains almost all of the traditional Thai ingredients in a single bowl. If you ever wanted to know what Thai cuisine is about, just have a sip of this delicious soup and you can feel as if you are walking in the streets of Bangkok.

One of the most accurate and encompassing cookbooks about Thai and other Southeast Asian cuisines is Robert Danhi's Southeast Asian Flavors: Adventures in Cooking the Foods of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia & Singapore. The recipe for the soup you see here comes from this book and I can wholeheartedly tell you that it tastes as authentic as it looks. Chef Danhi spent years travelling and eating his way through the Southeast Asian region and in this book, he not only details the most authentic recipes (over 100 of them) from that region, the book is also a one of a kind peek into the varied cultures of the people living there through the food they eat. If you are interested in Asian cuisine, particularly the Southeast Asian variety, then this book is a must-own. You can also visit the book's companion website here.

There are two parts to making this complex soup (as I said before, this is Thailand in a bowl). First is to make what Danhi calls roasted red chili paste or nahm prik pow (with emphasis on the last word!). This paste can be the starting point for many Thai dishes including stir-fries and soups. You need:

1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon dried shrimp (hydrate by soaking in warm water for 5 minutes and pat dry)
1 cup sliced shallots
1/2 cup sliced garlic
1/4 cup dried red chilies (stem and seeds removed)
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons tamarind paste
3 tablespoons palm sugar (grated)
Start by heating up the oil in a large wok over medium heat (too hot and the shallots and garlics will blacken too quickly). Add the hydrated shrimp and cook until they darken slightly. Strain, set the shrimp aside and then return oil to the wok. Now fry the shallots, stirring often until they turn golden brown. Again, strain and get the oil back to the wok and repeat the process for the garlic as well. Finally, fry the chilies for just 5-10 seconds, return everything else to the wok and set aside to let it cool. Use wither a mortar and pestle or food processor to puree until fine. In the wok, combine the pureed mixture with the fish sauce, tamarind paste and palm sugar and let it come to a boil and cook for about a minute, stirring constantly. At this point, a nice aroma will waft through your kitchen. Let it cool down and this chili paste can be stored and reused for up to 2 months.
Phew, now on to the 2nd part of making Tom Yum Goong. The main ingredient that you need to make this soup is shrimp heads. Yes, those succulent heads are the basis for the flavors in the soup and without them, don't even attempt it as the soup would not taste anywhere as good. Here are the ingredients:

2 lbs. shrimp with head-on
2 tablespoons roasted red chili paste (above)
1 tablespoon minced cilantro stems (reserve the leaves for garnish)
4-6 Thai bird chilies (split in half lengthwise)
8 cups seafood/chicken broth
6 stalks lemongrass (3-inch lengths and lightly bruised)
3 slices galangal
10 kaffir lime leaves (lightly bruised)
2 plum/roma romatoes (medium dice)
1/2 can straw mushrooms (shiitake is good as well)
1/4 cup fish sauce
1/2 cup lime juice
1/4 cup cilantro leaves

First, peel the shrimp, reserving the heads and shells and leaving the tails attached. Heat up 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil in a saucepan or wok over high heat and cook the shrimp heads and shells, stirring constantly for about a minute. Add the chili paste, bird chilies, cilantro stems and the stock, bring to a boil and then lower to heat to a simmer for about 10 minutes. Strain the soup into a new pot and add the lemongrass, galangal and kaffir lime leaves and simmer for another 5 minutes. Add the shrimp, tomatoes, mushrooms and fish sauce. Bring back to a simmer and remove from heat when the shrimp are cooked. Taste and adjust the seasoning with fish sauce and lime juice (no salt needed). Serve immediately and garnish with the cilantro leaves.

Yes, making Tom Yum Goong can be quite a chore but if you can procure all the exotic ingredients above, you should try it as it is so flavorful and delicious.

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