I don’t think I would be exaggerating to say I was a total mess after giving birth the second time. Dazed, depressed and demoralized, I struggled with things I thought were so easy as a new mother a decade earlier — changing diapers, giving baths, getting up in the morning.
This spicy vegetable soup was one of the few constants in a maze of uncertainty (“Why is he crying? Is he sick? What does he want?”) Full of nutrients and flavor, it is real Thai health food: one of the things Thai people say new mothers must eat to bring their milk in and keep their strength up. So for me, gaeng liang is the soup of retreat and renewal. It is also one of the few things that can make me sound like a spa brochure.
I based this recipe on Chef McDang’s gaeng liang in his “Principles of Thai Cookery”, which calls for pumpkin, buab (sponge gourd), bai tum lung (ivy gourd leaves) and lemon basil leaves. I swapped water out for chicken stock, grilled serpenthead fish in favor of shrimp, and added nam thao, a sort of watery green gourd. Because this soup is so rich in vegetables, you can omit the seafood altogether, but the shrimp paste is essential.
Gaeng Liang (for 4)
-300 g chicken stock
-7 small green chilies
-1 Tbsp kapi (shrimp paste)*
-1/2 Tbsp white peppercorns
-2 Tbsp fish sauce
-1 tsp sugar
-2 g pumpkin, peeled and cut
-2 g straw mushrooms
-1 buab (sponge gourd), peeled and cut**
-1/2 nam thao (green gourd), peeled and cut**
-handful of lemon basil and ivy gourd leaves
-300 g white shrimp, cleaned
1. Set chicken stock to boil over high heat.
2. While chicken stock is heating, make your soup base. Pound shallots, chilies, shrimp paste and peppercorns with mortar and pestle until semi-smooth consistency is achieved. Your chili paste should look like this:
3. Once boil is reached, add chili paste. Brace yourself; the smell can go up your nose and set off a cascade of sneezes.
4. Once boil returns, add fish sauce, sugar and veggies except for pumpkin, which gets mushy if overcooked.
5. Once boil returns, add pumpkin. Your gaeng should now look like this:
Skim foam off surface periodically as veggies boil to cut down on shrimpy smell. Leave for about 5 minutes.
6. Add shrimp but do not overstir. Add herbs and, without stirring, cover. Lower heat to medium. Leave for another 3-5 minutes.
7. Taste and, if necessary, correct seasoning. Shut off flame and leave to “marinate”. Your gaeng should look like this:
You can leave this for a day (refrigerated overnight) before eating. The kapi-heavy nam prik you so painstakingly pounded will turn the broth into a mahogany-colored, shrimpy ambrosia. Lunch the next day:
Next up: we delve deeper into the wonderful world of nam prik (chili paste) — the foundation for all Thai dishes.
*You need good-quality kapi for this to work. Chef McDang says you can roast store-bought shrimp paste until fragrant, but you can also buy the type made from small shrimp (referred to as kuey in the southern Thai dialect), which needs no pre-roasting at all.
**You may not be able to secure sponge gourd or green gourd where you live. Just in case you come across them, they look like this in their natural state:
If you can’t find these, substitute zucchini and yellow squash for the gourds, and baby spinach for the ivy gourd leaves.