There’s a good reason tom yum is on practically every Thai restaurant menu across America. The beloved soup encapsulates all the flavors that make Thai cooking so special: bright lime, fiery chiles, pungent fish sauce, and a subtle sweetness. Yum, in Thai, refers to the citrusy, spicy, fish sauce-filled soup base while tom means to boil.
It’s so good that New York’s celebrated Thai institution, Fish Cheeks, brought the dish back to its menu this winter. “It’s such a great fit for the winter months because it’s comforting, it’s super tasty, and it’s always a crowd pleaser. It has citrus, it’s salty, sweet, spicy, umami,” says Jennifer Saesue, one of the owners of Fish Cheeks.
“Every household in Thailand makes it,” adds Chef Ohm Suansilphong. “It’s part of the meal. People of all ages can eat it; it doesn’t necessarily have to be super spicy.”
In America, tom yum is typically associated with seafood-especially shrimp. In Thailand, the predominant protein is fish, but can range from chicken to even ham. “There are so many types of tom yum in Thailand. It’s a more modern dish, not an ancient dish,” Suansilphong explains. “Kids in dormitories in Thailand add precooked sausage and ham to their tom yum when they don’t have gas or stoves. They use microwaves.”
The tom yum at Fish Cheeks is a far cry from a dormitory slapjob and includes squid, mussels, and shrimp, but, when preparing it at home, feel free to use whatever protein you like. Chef Ohm’s favorite, for example, is chicken. “The main challenge in making it is getting the right flavor. Mix fish sauce and lime in equal parts and taste it,” Suansilphong says. “This is the key to balance. If you prefer more lime, then add more lime. Sugar is not a prominent ingredient, but you can add a little bit to include sweetness-though the shrimp will already provide natural sweetness.”
If you don’t have lots of lime available, Suansilphong suggests that you maybe be able to get away with vinegar and a smaller squeeze of lime. And if you’re not a big fan of glass noodles, which this recipe calls for, feel free to use an alternative like rice noodles. “Our recipe has glass noodles because it’s easy to boil it right into the soup,” Suansilphong says. “If you want to use other noodles, boil them separately-otherwise the starch from the noodles will cloud the soup.” The soup, it should be noted, already gets some viscosity from a tiny splash of half & half, which makes it a tom yum nam khon, or creamy tom yum.
“We’re not anti anything that’s popular, but when Fish Cheeks first opened we wanted to make things that aren’t as well known,” Saesue says of tom yum’s prior absence on the menu. That being said, the comeback is in full force. “You can’t deny that tom yum is popular because it just tastes so pleasing to the palate.”
Tom Yum Noodles
Ingredients For the soup seasoning 1 1/2oz fish sauce 1 1/2oz lime juice 2 oz half & half 1 tbs chili jam 1 tbs sugar 1 pinch sea salt **mixed well
For the stock Stock should yield 12oz 14 oz water 1 stalk lemongrass, cut 2 inches and bruised 2 slices of galangal, bruised 2 small shallots, bruised 2 makrut lime leaves, torn 2 bird’s eye chillies, smashed
For everything else 1 pack glass noodles 2 prawns cleaned with head on 1 calamari, cut to 1 inch 3-4 mussel (scrub) 4 button mushrooms, halved Culantro for garnish Cilantro for garnish
Put Bird’s eye chilies, lemongrass, galangal, shallot, and kaffir lime leaves in a pot of water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes.
Strain. Return stock to the boil.
Add glass noodles, seasoning, then add prawn, calamari, mussels, and mushroom.
Simmer until mussels just opened. The soup should taste salty, sour, and hot.
Top with culantro and cilantro before serving.
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Kat Thompson is a staff writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn.
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