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~ Thai Hot & Sour Prawn Soup: Tom Yam Kung ~

PICT2508In Thailand, a perfectly-balanced Thai meal combines what is referred as their famous four "S's", or, the flavors of:  spicy, salty, sweet and sour.  In Thailand there are two main categories of soup:  spicy and not spicy.  "Tom" is the Thai word for soup and the boiling process in general. "Yam" is the Thai word that refers to dishes that are spicy and sour.  "Kung" is the Thai word for prawns, but if you hear the word "goong" used instead of kung, worry not, it means the same and is the same soup.  Tom Yam is the undisputed king of soups in Thailand, a must on all Thai restaurant menus, and, quite easy to make in the home kitchen.  For Thai food lovers around the world, Tom Yam Goong is considered to be the measure of a great Thai chef.  Amongst a list of several Thai soups that I prepare here in Melanie's Kitchen, this is indeed my absolute favorite! 

A bit about tom yam kung (sometimes called/spelled goong):  It's the name for a spicy, clear to semi-clear broth Thai soup, that has the distinction of being listed as #8 on the World's Most Delicious Foods list (compiled by CNN).  Being the most famous soup in Thailand itself, it is traditionally prepared using flavorful Thai chicken stock as its base, fresh, fragrant Thai ingredients (lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, straw mushrooms, Thai bird chile peppers and cilantro), fish sauce, lime juice, tom yam paste, and, prawns.  That being said, it can also be prepared using mixed seafood, or, strips of uncooked chicken or pork, in which case the name changes to:

Tom Yam Talay (mixed seafood)

Tom Yam Gai (chicken)

Tom Yam Moo (pork)

PICT2120Before preparing this soup, I highly recommend you take the time to prepare my recipe for ~ Thai Chicken Stock (Real Thai Food Starts Here) ~, which you can find in Categories 13, 15 & 22.  Too many Americanized Thai soup recipes call for "chicken stock", which, is just plain wrong, when you consider that classic chicken stock is prepared with an entirely different flavor palate in mind!

Included in my recipe for Thai chicken stock, you'll find a nifty little list of several Thai ingredients (with pictures and explanations of each) pertinent to making the stock.  Today, I'm going to add four new ones to that list, which (in addition to lemon grass and kaffir lime leaves) are necessary to make tom yam soup:

PICT2447Galangal is an exotic, fragrant, peppery tasting rhizome and resembles fresh ginger.  It is used a lot in the preparation of Thai soups.  As galangal ages, its flavor becomes stronger, and, at that point it is used in making Thai curry pastes.  Galangal, like ginger, freezes really well. 

PICT2450Mushrooms used in traditional Thai cooking include the small-capped, wide-stalked, sweet straw mushroom, which is the mushroom of choice for tom yam.  Fresh straw mushrooms are very difficult to find, so canned ones are usually used.  Fresh white button mushroom caps can be substituted, and are substituted frequently, in the Thai kitchen.

PICT2467Chili paste and/or tom yam paste is important to many Thai dishes.  In it's homemade form, it is a mixture of shrimp paste, dried red chiles, garlic, shallots, tamarind juice (which is sour) and palm sugar.  It is always used in the preparation of tom yam kung.  A great, high-quality time-saver is to buy a jar of tom yam paste at your Asian market and keep it in your pantry or refrigerator. 




PICT2472Palm Sugar is made from the sap of the coconut or sugar palm.  It varies from light to dark brown and resembles light and dark brown sugars.  It is used to balance Thai dishes with a distinct, sharp sweetness.  It is usually added to tom yam soup, but is not a requirement (as it is used in homemade chili paste).  If you are using prepared  tom yam paste, you'll probably want to add some palm sugar to your soup, to taste.  Once opened, I keep mine stored in the refrigerator, where it will get quite hard, so remove it an hour or two prior to using.  If you have a hard time finding it, light brown sugar is an agreeable substitute.

Mel's Recipe for Tom Yam Kung 

PICT2477For the basic tom yam broth:

6  cups Thai chicken stock

2  tablespoons Thai fish sauce

2  tablespoons lime juice

2  tablespoons palm sugar

2  tablespoons tom yam paste

~ Step 1. Bring all ingredients to a simmer in a 6-quart stockpot.  Taste and adjust seasonings to suit you.

PICT2483For the aromatic vegetables:

2  tablespoons peeled and finely minced galangal

2  6" stalks tender lemon grass, cut into very thin ringlets

6  kaffir lime leaves, center vein removed, very thinly sliced

6  Thai bird chile peppers, cut into very thin ringlets

PICT24942  15-ounce cans straw mushrooms, well-drained

~ Step 2.  Prep and add all vegetables to tom yam broth. Adjust heat to simmer, partially cover and cook for 6-8 minutes.  Note:   To this point, tom yam soup broth can be prepared several hours and up to a day in advance of serving.  If you make a double or triple batch of it, the broth can even be frozen!

PICT4413For the shrimp and garnish:

2  pounds jumbo (21/25 count) shrimp (thawed if frozen), peeled and deveined, tails left on

1/2 cup whole or minced fresh cilantro leaves, for garnish

Note:  I buy both fresh and frozen shrimp, but I always try to purchase tail-on, shell-on, deveined shrimp (referred to as "easy peel").  It is customary in many Thai dishes to leave the tails-on the shrimp.

PICT2499~ Step 3.  Add the shrimp to the simmering tom yam broth.  When the soup returns to a simmer, adjust heat to a very gentle simmer and continue to cook for 3-4 minutes, which will depend upon how gentle your simmer is.  Do not overcook shrimp.  Remove from heat, cover the pot and set aside for about 5-6 minutes prior to serving.  Portion and serve immediately garnished with cilantro leaves:

PICT2511Thai Hot & Sour Prawn Soup:  Tom Yam Kung:  Recipe yields 2 1/2 quarts, or, 6-8 servings w/each bowl containing 6-7 shrimp.  To turn this into a heartier soup, in true Thai-style, place a scoop of steamed jasmine rice in the center of each bowl and ladle soup over the rice!

Special Equipment List:  cutting board; chef's knife; 6-quart stockpot w/lid; soup ladle

Cook's Note:  In Western countries, soup is often served as a course by itself.  This is not so in Thailand.  In a Thai home, several dishes are placed on the table all at once for everyone to share.  A typical meal usually includes:  rice and/or noodles; curry; soup; salad, stir-fry; dipping sauce w/fresh or steamed vegetables; meat, poultry or fish; chile peppers in fish sauce.  In a Thai restaurant situation, everyone seated at the table orders one or two dishes (depending on how many people, how hungry they are, and of course, their budget).  All of the dishes come to the table at once, and the food is eaten family-style, as described above!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2012)


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Thanks Laurie! This is probably my all-time favorite Thai soup!

Melanie, Once again, you have shared another fabulous recipe along with interesting customs. My husband and I adore Thai food and shopping at the Asian markets. We love all the of course, your Thai Hot and Sour Prawn Soup will be wonderfully delicious. Laurie

Anna! How great to hear from you! The ingredients are quite easy to find in your local Asian market (or on-line). Without bragging, I will say this: if you like Tom Yam soup... this recipe is "the real deal"! ~ Mel.

Maria! As always, you make my day when you comment! Joe and I are true lovers of Thai food, and have even traveled to Thailand. That being said, the woman who taught me to cook Thai, was a home economist from Thailand who was living here while her husband earned his engineering degree from Penn State. She was amazing. Without bragging, I will tell you: my Thai recipes are the "real deal"!!!

This looks yummy! Looks like I'd better start sourcing some ingredients:)

Melanie, this looks soooooooooo delicious and wonderful, that I can taste it just looking at the picture....
I love your post, and especially when you describe the customs of the in Thailand everyone eats family style...I love it when we go to a Thai restaurant that all our ordered dishes come at once to the table...and we all share the dishes........
This manner of eating makes for a warmer and less formal atmosphere at the table. Even when we go out with people that we do not know well, they become friends while we share the meal and talk at the same time........

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