My Citizens! While most of you are officially in the frigid clutch of Old Man Winter, I am enjoying the elevated Summer temperatures here on the shoulders of Mt. Erebus in Antarctica – aka the soaring volcanic home to My secret lair! It is a ‘balmy’ -15 degrees Fahrenheit and I for one am enjoying the crystalline chill of Niflheim incarnate while so many of you attempt to stay warm! Both My tolerance and love for extreme cold are well-known facts amongst My friends and associates, but FEAR NOT! I am here on the scene with a soothing hot cup of a favorite potation – the unmatched Thai hot and sour soup known as Tom Yom Goong Nam Koh, aka creamy hot and sour soup with prawns!
This is a hybrid recipe in the repertoire of Thai soups – it is the missing link between tom yum soup (clear) and tom kha (a different style of soup using coconut milk to make it creamy) – this is very much a tom yum, as tom kha uses galangal and chicken as its primary flavors (though they look very similar). Tom yum goong nam koh itself was only created in the 1980’s – it is distinguished from the clear original tom yum by its milky appearance, but instead of using Asian coconut milk, it instead relies on Western evaporated milk!
The taste of tom yum is based on sour and spicy flavors. The basic ingredient of tom yum is shrimp or pork and the most popular tom yum base is river shrimp, known as tom yum goong. Its history is intriguing, its flavor is complex and it represents one of the most formidable ways to present and serve large, head-on river prawns that I know of! Join me as I – the Hetman of History! – regales your senses as I recount the recipe’s backstory and My ruthlessly authentic version of the soup!
The words ‘tom yum’ are derived from two Thai words. Tom refers to the boiling process, while yam means ‘mixed’. Tom yum is characterized by its distinct hot and sour flavors, with fragrant spices and herbs generously used in the broth. The soup is also made with fresh ingredients such as lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, lime juice, fish sauce, and crushed red chili peppers. The essential ingredients of tom yum are herbs such as lemongrass, galangal, and kaffir lime leaves. Other ingredients are also important, especially Thai chilies, mushroom, coriander leaf (cilantro), tomatoes, sweet white onions, lime juice, sugar, and fish sauce.
In the modern popularized versions the soup also contains mushrooms—usually straw mushrooms or oyster mushrooms. The soup is often topped with a generous sprinkling of fresh chopped cilantro (coriander leaves). Sometimes Thai chili jam (nam phrik phao, Thai: น้ำพริกเผา) is added: this gives the soup a bright orange color and makes the chili flavor more pronounced.
Although the exact history of Tom Yum Goong is not fully known, it is widely believed that it is a Thai soup originated from Central Thailand, where there is an abundance of fresh shrimp in the Chao Phraya River.
Over the years, the soup has become a favorite in Thailand and quickly spread around the world thanks to its relatively simple preparation and fantastic flavors. Many western cultures have been exposed to Tom Yum Goong and it has become a staple dish of Thai restaurants that serve customers from all over the world. An interesting anecdote about the popularity of Tom Yum Goong: the 1997 financial crisis which struck many Asian countries became known as the Tom Yum Goong crisis since it all started in Thailand!
In March of 2021, the Thai government recognized the culinary importance of this soup – as noted in this lightly-excerpted article from the Thai Times:
This past Tuesday, the cabinet gave the green light for the Ministry of Culture to move forward with proposing “tom yum goong” as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) recognized dish, according to the Minister of Culture Ittiphol Khunpluem.
The Ministry of Culture views the soup as an important part of Thai heritage because it represents the agricultural communities in Central Thailand, reflecting the uncomplicated dietary culture that has remained constant over time. As UNESCO recognizes culinary traditions as an element of Intangible Cultural Heritage, it is not simply the dish but also its methods of preparation that are being nominated by the Ministry.
It comes as little surprise that “tom yum goong” is being proposed as a dish of significant cultural value; the soup has long been enjoyed domestically and internationally. Such a popular dish has gained a reputation for being a culinary staple, becoming associated with – and now, potentially representing – the country.
And after all, who can forget the iconic nickname of the 1997 Asian financial crisis?
But as Thailand lays claims of national heritage, what really comes into question is the history of the dish.
“Tom yum goong” is ancient – a soup that is widely known, but not well documented. Given Thailand’s oral traditions, it makes sense that such a favoured dish would simply be passed down by word of mouth, constantly made and remade before the time of written recipes.
It’s generally believed that the abundance of freshwater shrimp in the Chao Phraya River gave rise to the dish, causing many to use it as a central component in their soups. As a result, “tom yum goong” is thought to have originated in Central Thailand.
However, the first written record of a tom yum recipe, which dates from 1888, is titled “snakehead fish tom yum” (ต้มยำปลาช่อน). The first mention of shrimp in a “tom yum” soup is found in a “food dictionary” from 1897, written by an American missionary, in a recipe titled “tom yum goong with additional garnish” (ต้มยำกุ้งทรงเครื่อง).
Though the spicy and sour flavours still lie at the core of the soup, not much else is similar. Neither recipe resembles what “tom yum goong” looks like today: the former makes use of shredded green mango and pickled garlic brine, and the latter uses the madan fruit instead of limes to achieve the sour taste.
The three essential ingredients – lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and galangal – to “tom yum” soup as we know it were likely added in as the soup evolved over time, changing ingredients while maintaining its iconic, enjoyable flavours. It’s worth noting too how much “tom yum” recipes have actually changed in modern times, with the recent addition of coconut milk to make “creamy tom yum” or “tom yum nam khon” (ต้มยำน้ำข้น), blurring the lines between “tom yum” and “tom kha” soup.
Professional archaeologist, hobbyist gastronome, and columnist Krit Luealamai (กฤช เหลือลมัย) has previously written about how these older “tom yum goong” recipes liken more to Cambodian-style “tom yum,” as documented in a recipe book from 1907. It’s self-evident that “tom yum goong” is a popular variant of “tom yum” soup that’s been deeply embedded in Thai culinary history. But a clearwater, hot and sour soup has long been enjoyed in East and Southeast Asia.
Not to mention, ingredients can be found anywhere in the region: lemongrass is native to the South Asian region, galangal to China, and kaffir limes to Indonesia. Who’s to say that the very first bowl of hot and sour soup with shrimp in it was definitely made in Central Thailand?
It goes without saying that every country has developed a soup unique to local ingredients to constitute a “national cuisine,” but as we move forward with efforts to “protect” elements of modern culture as “heritage,” it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on what that word really means.
On thaifoodmaster.com, it is further noted that:
Tom yum soup exhibits four clear flavors: unapologetic sourness, bold spiciness, and saltiness with notes of compromising sweetness. It has a playful citrusy aroma from lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, accented with a pleasant scent of roasted chili jam.
Tom yum soup, spicy red curry (gaaeng phet, แกงเผ็ด), sour curry (gaaeng sohm, แกงส้ม), sour soup (dtohm sohm, ต้มส้ม), and fermented fish soup (dtohm bplaa raa, ต้มปลาร้า) are just a few examples of dishes classified as aahaan bpra phaeht naam gaaeng (อาหารประเภทน้ำแกง), or “liquid-based dishes”; in English, we might refer to these as either soups or curries.
To properly create tom yum goong nam koh, you first need the freshest large shrimp you can get – low-quality shrimp = bad soup – and ideally you want huge head-on, claws-on river prawns! These are usually stocked in Asian supermarkets and some upscale Western markets as well! If you can’t find these, an effective substitute that you can find here on the West Coast of the United States are live spot prawns, pulled still swimming in the tank! Otherwise, just use the biggest, FRESHEST shell-on shrimp you can get your hands on!
As noted on seriouseats.com:
Shrimp are highly perishable, so it’s important to know how to pick out the freshest shrimp available, not just for taste and texture but also for safety. First off, you don’t want any shrimp that smell like ammonia—this is a telltale sign of spoilage, and it’s worth asking your fishmonger if you can take a sniff before buying. You’ll also want to avoid shrimp that are limp, slimy, or falling apart, all of which are signs of decay.
A more advanced sign if you’re buying head-on fresh shrimp: look for black spots on the head first, then the body. “That’s a pretty good indicator that it’s not at peak freshness,” says Davis Herron, the retail director at The Lobster Place, one of New York’s best seafood markets. The black spots are called melanosis; it’s the result of the same oxidation process that turns your apples and avocados brown. In other words, they don’t definitively mean that your shrimp is bad, but they do indicate that the shrimp could be fresher.
Another key component of this dish is the Thai red chili paste, and I know of no better version of this seminal Thai recipe than the one from my friend Pim Techamuanvivit, an acclaimed Thai chef and restaurateur based in San Francisco. She is the owner of Nari, Kamin, and Michelin-starred Kin Khao restaurants in San Francisco, and became the executive chef of Michelin-starred Nahm in Bangkok in 2019. You can – if you MUST – just use a prepared version you purchase in advance – this brand is quite decent.
There are several special ingredients you will need to purchase, unless you regularly make homemade Thai food in your kitchen – trust me, these are phenomenal ingredients and any leftovers can be used in any number of delicious recipes! These include coconut palm sugar, fish sauce, tamarind paste, Thai oyster sauce (the best!), the proper dried chilies, fresh kaffir lime leaves, Thai shrimp paste and canned straw mushrooms – all of the links are to my preferred brands! The use of oyster sauce and tamarind paste are my additions, but I reference the original ingredients if you want to stay canonical and consider yourself a heterodoxist in this matter!
My Citizens – stay warm, stay safe and stay healthy – and please do enjoy this transcendent soup of soups! 🙂
Battle on – the Generalissimo
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