tom-yum-goongSo…how ’bout that weather we’re having?  After an October that had us wondering if global warming is such a bad thing after all (it still is, apparently), we’re definitely feeling the chill now.  Here at Capital Spice headquarters, that means we start craving hot comfort foods.

But our (okay…my) days of Chunky Soup and Hot Pockets are mostly behind us, and as much as we love to make risotto we try to eat healthier even in the colder months.  That’s where homemade soups come in, especially soups that are made without any kind of cream base.

On a whim a few weeks ago, I suggested to Elizabeth that we try a homemade version of Tom Yum, the spicy Thai soup that mixes a protein (usually shrimp or chicken), lemongrass, and other traditional thai veggies in a chili-spiked broth.  We’re no strangers to soups that feature shrimp, so we searched out a good-looking recipe and got to work.

They say that great minds think alike, so it was reassuring to see DCist’s post last Friday describing Jamie Liu’s go-to home remedy for fighting off a cold: her version of Tom Yum.

Details on our version – including a few substitions for the hardest-to-find ingredients – after the jump.


From the very beginning, we knew that we’d have a hard time finding some of the ingredients that the Temple of Thai recipe called for:

  • Galangal root – related to ginger but not all that similar to ginger in terms of taste.  Thai Kitchen recommended we substitute ginger mixed with some lemon juice, which worked fine for our purposes.
  • Kaffir lime leaves – the leaves of this southeast Asian lime have a ‘clean’ flavor and aroma that goes beyond that of western limes.  In this recipe, they’re used whole as an aromatic and aren’t meant to be eaten, so we grated some lime zest into our soup to achieve that same bright scent without too much impact on the overall flavor.
  • Tamarind paste – believe it or not, tamarind is what gives Worcestershire sauce its unique flavor.  Unable to find the paste (and unwilling to grind up the pods that Harris Teeter sells as part of this meal), we opted to go with good old Lea & Perrin’s.

Once we had our substitutes figured out, it was a simple matter of following directions.  We put the water on to boil, but we decided to go with two cups of water and two cups of low-sodium chicken broth instead of the four cups of water that were called for because we wanted a heartier flavor.  Once we had a good rolling boil, we dropped in two chopped and smashed stalks of lemon grass, a good handful of chopped ginger, the zest of one lime, and a tablespoon each of fish sauce and Worcestershire sauce.

sambal-oelekIt’s just that easy to make the broth – a definite point in the recipe’s favor.  Give the ingredients a minute or two to get to know each other, and it’s time to introduce the protein and the veggies.  Once again, we took some liberties with the recipe at this point, opting to double the amount of shrimp they called for (1.5 pounds instead of 3/4 of a pound) because we wanted a more substantial meal.  We let the shrimp cook in the broth for three minutes and then threw in half a small white onion (chopped), a can of store-bought straw mushrooms, and two tablespoons sambal oelek, an Indonesian chili paste that we bought because we couldn’t find the nam prik pao that the original recipe called for.

That’s right.  Two tablespoons of chili paste.  Tom yum isn’t known as a “hot and sour” soup for nothing.

The recipe called for another seven minutes of boiling at this point, but past experience with shrimp suggested that this might be a bit too long for the delicate little guys to take.  We gave it five minutes before adding a whole tomato chopped into small wedges and strips cut from two medium-sized jalapenos (one of the only western substitutes that the recipe itself actually offers).  We killed the heat, squeezed in the juice of now-zestless lime, and let it sit on a cool burner for a few minutes to allow the flavors to mix and mingle.

tom-yum-soupAs it turns out, that mingling is at the very heart of tom yum.  It took some looking around, but I finally found the translation for the name of the soup.  The first word, ต้ม, is phonetically translated as ‘tom,’ and it means “boiled.”  The second word, ยำ, which is alternately written as ‘yum’ or ‘yam,’ means “blend” or “slice and mix together.”  Make the recipe with shrimp, and you’ve got tom yum goong (our favorite).  Swap the shrimp for slices of chicken breast, and you’ve got tom yum gai.  There are other options as well, including firm-fleshed white fish and, of course, tofu.

We served it hot and garnished with cilantro, as the recipe suggested.  The end result?  An unqualified success, despite the various substitutions we had to make.  The sour flavors of the lime juice and the Worcestershire sauce came through loud and clear, and the heat from the chili paste and the jalapenos gave the soup a real kick that made it doubly satisfying on a cold day.  The shrimp were still plump and juicy instead of shriveled and tough, so we were definitely glad that we pulled them off the heat when we did.  The whole thing came together in a satisfying combination of flavors that warmed us from the inside out.  As an added bonus, the recipe made enough soup to allow for leftovers that would become subsequent lunches, which is always something we look for when trying out new homemade dishes.

At some point, we intend to hunt down the authentic ingredients at one of the many Asian grocers in the nearby area so we can compare the recipe as it was meant to be made with our own version.  But for now we’re really happy with what we’ve got, and our “Tom Double Yum Double Goong” is definitely going to be part of our cold weather repertoire going forward.