Classic Tom Yam – The Soup with Thailand’s Aroma

Tom Yam

Photo Credit: ssour

Tom yam has been referred to as the “national aroma of Thailand”, and it is a hot and spicy combination of tangy lime, lemon grass, galangal (a close cousin of ginger), mushrooms, and chilies. Depending on the kind of tom yam you want, meats and seafood are used as central ingredients in this dish, but prawns are the exceedingly popular choice. To the uninitiated, a first taste of this soup is truly a culinary adventure, and a first sip usually elicits an involuntary indrawn breath from those who are used to Western fare.

The Different Kinds of Tom Yam

This dish is at the very heart of Thai traditional food, but it is also a staple soup in Cambodia, Laos, and some Malay territories; these were part of the Rattanakosin Kingdom, which began in the 18th century.

Some versions of seafood based tom yams feature the addition of coconut meat, or coconut milk, or both. If you want your dish to have the creamy flavor of coconut milk, ask for tom yam nam khon.

There are several kinds of tom yam, and each will derive a subtle flavor from the meat or seafood used as the principal ingredient of the dish. Tom-yam goong is made with prawns, while tom yam is made with fish. Tom-yam gai contains chicken, tom yam kha mu has pork leg. If you want your bowl of soup to have different types of seafood, ask for tom yam thale. The classic foundations of this soup remain the same, however: lemon grass, chilies, lime, kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce, and galangal.

Here’s an interesting tidbit about this dish: It is so associated with Thailand, the 1997 Asian financial crisis is often referred to as the “Tom Yam Goong” crisis, simply because it started with the collapse of the Thai baht.

The Fine Points of Tom Yam

This dish lends itself to subtle changes in flavor because although the herbs and the heat figure prominently, the main ingredient always reigns supreme. Vegetarians can have their fill of this dish because you can use mushrooms as the star of your soup.

Tom yam is a relatively easy dish to prepare. There are, however, several rules that need to be observed if you want good tom yam. Writing about this beloved soup in My Thai: Creamy Tom Yam Soup, Leela Punyaratabandhu says, “…In Thailand, while dishes like Pad Thai—that require so many ingredients your head starts spinning—are almost always left to the street food cooks, Tom Yam is rooted firmly in the home kitchen. This is what a mother makes with a plate of Thai omelet for dinner when the fridge is nearly bare. This is what a grandmother whips up during monsoon season for her grandchildren who want a soothing, familiar meal. It’s what a father who only cooks once a decade, can make blindfolded…”

She cautions against using substitutes: “…Don’t even think about using lemon rinds, lemon juice, or soy sauce as substitutes for lemongrass, lime juice, and fish sauce. Using dried herbs instead of fresh will also instantly turn a lovely pot of Tom Yam into a cauldron of herbal medicine…

“Making Tom Yam is kind of like making tea. To make tea, you infuse warm water with tea leaves; to make Tom Yam, you infuse warm broth with fresh herbs…”

Tom Yam has Conquered the World

This dish is now served in Thai as well as Asian fusion restaurants all over the world. CNN Travel gathered 35,000 votes to decide on the 50 most popular foods in the world. The results as published in Your Pick: World’s 50 Best Foods, and tom yam goong claims the spot as the fourth best food in the world, outranking potato chips, Parma ham, and hamburger! It is only a matter of time before the whole world learns that lurking in the sidelines, this dish is waiting to take its place as a global comfort food right beside chicken soup.

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