(Note: spoilers for “Game of Thrones” viewers and A Storm of Swords readers, published in 2000)
(Note take 2: I already tried making this soup. What gives? Unhappy with the first version, I tried it again. I am happy to report that, like “A Song of Ice and Fire”, this soup gets better!)
There are rules to things. Although I’m all for culinary experimentation, and switching things up for almost everything, some rules are set in stone(heart), and the breaking of them renders you cursed in the eyes of gods and men. One such rule: the guest right. Once you have partaken of your host’s bread and salt, you are supposed to rest assured that your host won’t start taking his brand-new set of Wusthof knives to your internal organs.
Yes, the “Red Wedding” was tragic, the King in the North was killed through black treachery instead of on the battlefield, Robb is dreamy, yada yada yada. But what angered me most was the hosts’ callous violation of the guest right, this most important of all rules governing Westeros, more so than even kinslaying or having sex with your sister. THASS JUST PLAIN RUDE. What’s next? Forgetting to wipe your blade before moving on to your next hapless wedding guest-slash-victim? Allowing stray blood spatters to sully the mashed neeps and jellied calves’ brains? Starting the slaughter before anyone’s had even a bite of wedding cake? WHAT IS UP WITH THAT. One lesson learned: never, ever go to Argus Filch’s house for dinner.
Immutable rule no. 2: tom yum, the spicy lemongrass soup served at almost every Thai restaurant you know, is an infusion. That’s what makes it the most Thai of soups, unlike dishes like gaeng jued (clear broth soup), which is adopted from the Chinese and hence based on a broth. The base of tom yum is water. You add all your aromatics and seasonings to it after it comes to a boil.
That’s probably part of the reason why it’s so easy to mess around with, and why modern-day cooks have started to play fast and loose with this poor soup, adding everything from nam prik pow (roasted chili paste) to milk and even sweetened condensed milk (I AM SHOCKED). The fact is, as great an invention as tom yum goong is, the contemporary tongue wants MORE. They want the drama, they want the spectacle, they want the gore. They want to be surprised.
So it’s no wonder, then, that even “old-style” eateries like Chote Chitr are dressing their tom yums up to better fit in with the times. Here, Chote Chitr includes fat tiger prawns, yes, and a healthy dash of milk:
The result is sweeter and fattier than the bracing, astringent herbal brew you (I) might have expected. It’s not really tom yum. It’s something else. How to make a proper rendition of this dish, but make sure it has enough flavor?
Well, you could take a cue from Jay Fai’s (1,500 baht) version, which caters to modern tastes while staying true to the spirit of the soup. In Jay Fai’s case, the difference is most certainly roasted chili paste. Although it is not strictly traditional, it adds the heat and flavor to an infusion without murking up all the flavors. Another thing: scraping the shrimp heads into the water, and allowing the heads to “infuse” alongside the kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass and galangal. This one hopes that — unlike breaking the guest right — these relatively newfangled additions will not curse you in the eyes of god and men.
Jay Fai’s tom yum goong (serves 4)
– 5 cups water
– 6 jumbo prawns with heads, deveined
– 6 large slices galangal
– 5-7 kaffir lime leaves (it’s a lot, but if you are cooking in the spirit of Jay Fai, you will want this soup to “go up to 11” — her personal motto.)
– 4 lemongrass bulbs (purple part), bruised
– 1 shallot, sliced
– 4-8 red chilies, bruised (this depends on your heat tolerance)
– 1 heaping tsp roasted chili paste
– 1 cup mushrooms (I used oyster, but straw or button mushrooms also fine)
– 1 cup young coconut shoots (if you can’t find these, you might want to use something else that is tender yet crunchy, like peeled white asparagus)
– 5 Tbs fish sauce
– juice of 2 limes
1. Bring water to a boil. Stir in roasted chili paste.
2. Add galangal, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass and chilies. Allow to infuse for about 5 minutes, then bring to a simmer.
3. Add shrimp heads, first scraping their contents into the soup. Wait 5 minutes, then season with fish sauce. Add mushrooms and coconut shoots.
4. Wait half an hour, or until shoots are tender. Skim gunk off of surface and discard shrimp heads.
5. Turn off heat, then add cleaned shrimp, and stir to turn the shrimp “pink”. Season with lime juice. Taste and adjust seasoning accordingly.
6. Serve immediately, paired with rice and a Thai-style omelet, or in individual small bowls.