Friday, March 28, 2014

Tom Yum Soup

Say the word soup and I'll probably say no thank you. That's because many restaurants are most likely using an animal-based stock even in your veggie soup and I just don't want to go there. Even when I request meals without fish sauce, some don't listen. Fish sauce is a seasoning, they argue, and so is chicken stock. Well, you can make things taste good without them if you know how. There are plant-based seasonings out there that just lift up the flavor of dishes that would otherwise be lacking. Some of my secrets are shiitake mushrooms and kombu. They add umami -- body, rich deep flavor, a sort of essence.

I had the best tom yum soup in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Actually, I had the best Thai meals in Chiang Mai period. And unfortunately I haven't been able to experience that level of Thai cuisine anywhere else. So I am very grateful that we took a cooking class at Baan Thai Cookery School. Even the recipe booklet they gave us was vegetarian-friendly, offering precise substitutions for shrimp, fish sauce and oyster sauce and I appreciate that!

So back to tom yum soup. Apparently that translates to hot and sour soup, but the thing I've learnt about Thai cuisine is the Four S's -- the balance between spicy, sour, salty and sweet. So when you make this, ask yourself if it's hitting all of these taste sensations. The basic ingredients for this light, yet hearty soup are lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, chili paste and mushrooms. From there, you can add what you like.

Now I know it can be hard to source these ingredients if you don't live near an Asian store, but do what I do -- buy in bulk and store in the freezer. For instance, I wash the kaffir lime leaves, let them dry and place them in a freezer container where they remain ready and waiting. You can substitute lime for beautiful, fragrant lemongrass but kaffir lime leaves offer a distinct note that just says "Thai food," so I don't think you can get away without it. You could use ginger instead of galangal without sacrificing flavor though.

The vegetarian chili paste they used at the cookery school tasted divine! I hunted around for it when I got back to Stockholm but found that most of them contained shrimp along with other additives, so I decided to make my own. I found a good recipe from the Inquiring Chef but tweaked it to my liking and I just love the stuff! You can even add it to noodles for a quick meal, and it lies in the fridge for months! Love!

I've been eating a lot of soups for dinner lately (and exercising!!) as I'd like to get back into shape for summer. So a lot of tom yum soup and daal and salad, and as they're so delicious, it's a win-win situation. Since I'm making a meal out of this soup, I add extras like peas, string beans and tofu for iron, carrots for vitamin-A, and mushrooms for B vitamins. And don't forget fresh coriander for a bright fresh hit. Enjoy!

Tom Yum Soup
Adapted from Baan Thai Cookery School 
Serves 1 generously

3 cups of water
1 small piece of kombu, sliced finely
1 lemongrass stick, split in half
5 kaffir lime leaves
2 inch knob of galangal or ginger, sliced
1 1 1/2 tbs chili paste (recipe follows)
5 dried shiitake mushrooms, rehydrated and sliced thinly
1/2 of a medium-sized onion
1 spring onion, sliced thinly
1 tsp sugar (if not using a carrot, which adds natural sweetness)
1 tbs soy sauce
A handful of fresh coriander, roughly chopped

Optional add-ins:
1 small carrot, sliced
1/4 cup frozen peas
1/4 cup green beans
1/3 cup broccoli florets
1/3 cup tomato, diced
1/3 cup of diced baked tofu

1. In a large pot, add the water, kombu, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, chili paste, mushrooms, onion and carrot (if using). Bring to a boil, then add soy sauce, tomato (if using) and taste: if it's not sour enough, add lime at the end. If not sweet enough, add some sugar. Add the peas/beans/broccoli/tofu at the very end of cooking so that they don't overcook. Lastly, garnish with spring onion and fresh coriander. Enjoy!

Chili paste (Nam Phrik Pao)
Adapted from The Inquiring Chef
Makes about a cup

15 dried Kashmiri red chilies* (You could also use fresh red chilies)
6 cloves of garlic
5-6 shallots
4 dried shiitake mushrooms, rehydrated
1 tbs sugar
1/4 cup tamarind paste
1 tbs vinegar
2 tbs canola oil
1-2 tbs water

1. Toast the chilies in a hot pan until blackened. Once cooled, take out the seeds.

2. Add the chilies and the rest of the ingredients to a food processor and blend until smooth. Place in an air-tight jar with a layer of canola oil on top, to prevent from spoiling. Lasts in the refrigerator for 2-3 months.

*Kashmiri red chilies are known for imparting their red color to foods and are not too spicy, but if you can't find them, a chile de arbol will work. If using fresh Thai birds eye chili, use only 10 as they're extremely spicy.

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