The first recipe I cooked from David Thompson’s Street Food cookbook was the Thai laksa with beef and dried prawns and it took me an extraordinary amount of time to prepare the intricate ingredients into various powders and pastes. The second recipe we chose is widely recognised and one of my favourite Thai dishes: tom yum goong, or Thai hot and sour prawn soup.
As the name suggests, this soup is spicy hot; pungent with aromatic fresh herbs like lemongrass, galangal and kaffir lime; fish sauce provides savoury depth and it’s sour from liberal splashings of lime juice and tamarind water.
It sounds simple enough, but there are so many different recipes on this one soup ranging from simple to incredibly complex and just as many different outcomes. I find it hard to bypass the tom yum if it’s on the menu and from establishments in Sydney and Thailand, I’ve tasted every extreme from paltry, watery, fishy, gritty, gelatinous soups to sign-inducing, soul-warming broths and everything in between.
Naturally as I’ve tasted so many different variations, I assumed a good, authentic tom yum would take hours of laborious preparation and, like a good beef pho, many more hours spent simmering the broth to the elusive taste and consistency on the stove.
So I was very pleasantly surprised to find the recipe for tom yum was exceptionally easy and quick - especially surprising given it’s a David Thompson recipe and the last one was so very intricate. What’s even better is that the ingredients are relatively commonplace (I had everything bar the fresh ingredients in my pantry and even the fresh ingredients are easy to source). From start to finish, prep included it takes only a mere 25 – 30 minutes to put this amazing soup together – and most of that is prep time! Cooking the soup itself took about 10 minutes!
Hot and sour prawn soup (tom yum goong)
Ingredients (serves 3 -4):
- 4 cups of chicken stock
- good pinch of salt
- pinch of white sugar
- 1 large tomato, cut into quarters & deseeded (optional)
- 1 dried long red chilli, coarsely chopped
- 8 – 12 raw prawns in their shells
- 3 – 5 stalks of lemongrass, trimmed
- 4 – 5 kaffir lime leaves, roughly torn
- 2 – 3 slices of galangal
- 5 red shallots, peeled
- 4 – 5 coriander roots, cleaned
- 5 – 10 green bird’s eye chillies, to taste (we used 2)
- 200g straw or oyster mushrooms, cleaned & trimmed (we used pearl mushrooms)
- 1 – 2 tbsp tamarind water (optional)
- 2- 4 tbsp lime juice, to taste
- 1 – 2 tbsp fish sauce, to taste
- 3 – 10 bird’s eye chillies, bruised (we used 3)
- pinch of roasted chilli powder
- 1 tbsp chopped coriander
- Bring the stock to the boil, season with the salt and sugar then add tomato and dried chilli. Simmer for several minutes until the tomato begins to break up
- Peel and de-vein the prawns, but leave the tails attached; the heads can be left intact for a more pleasing presentation, but it makes for trickier eating later
- Using a mortar and pestle, bruise the lemongrass, lime leaves, galangal, shallots, coriander roots and green bird’s eye chillis. Add these to the simmering stock, then cut or tear the mushrooms and add them too. Simmer for a minute or so until the mushrooms are tender before adding the prawns and tamarind water, if using. Simmer until the prawns are cooked – about 2 – 3 minutes.
- In a serving bowl, combine the lime juice with the fish sauce, chillies, chilli powder and coriander. Pour in the soup and stir thoroughly. It should taste equally hot, salt and sour – adjust the seasoning accordingly.
- Serve with steamed rice.
Like all David Thompson recipes, this one is authentically Thai spicy. The recipe calls for anywhere from 8 – 20 bird’s eye chillies! And then a pinch of extra chilli powder for good measure. If you think you can handle spicy food but haven’t tried bird’s eye chillies before – don’t be a hero. The people at my local Thai lunch haunt think I’m Thai and thus can and should tolerate “Thai spicy” dishes. Everytime I forget to tell them “not Thai spicy!”, I end up writhing around my office floor with an acute attack of chilli indigestion.
The Co-pilot and I both consider ourselves fans of spicy Asian food and we put in 5 bird’s eye chillies – and it was already spicy enough, in fact a little too spicy for some of our friends who were frequenting our fridge for milk and yoghurt to douse the flames. For those unsure of how much spice they can handle, I suggest trying a total of 3 bird’s eye chillies to begin with (you can always add more if the amount of spice doesn’t tango with your tastebuds).
Once all the soup ingredients were cut, chopped or bruised, we put the tomatoes, chillis and herbs into a pot and started simmering the broth.
Next, the mushrooms followed suit. We used pearl mushrooms as we couldn’t find fresh oyster and straw mushrooms and their slippery soft texture suited the soup perfectly.
Immediately after the mushrooms (as they require very little cooking to start breaking down their cellulose walls), the prawns were tossed in. We used medium sized Australian tiger prawns that were sweet, fresh and had an amazing crunch once cooked. We also left the prawn heads on to give the soup a stronger prawn flavour.
Whilst waiting for the prawns cook, the rest of the seasonings were compiled ready to stir in – fish sauce, coriander, yet more chillies and chilli powder. Though David Thompson’s recipe didn’t ask for any additional ingredients, I added in fresh baby corn and bamboo slivers – all leftovers from the Thai laksa I made and added as they didn’t impart much of their flavour to the soup but added some welcome texture and crunch.
After a quick taste and vigorous appreciative head nodding, the soup was ready. Who would’ve thought something so delicious could really be so simple. It didn’t seem complicated enough!
But it didn’t need to be any more complicated – it was perfect and tasted so authentic. As good as anything we tasted in Thailand – and in some cases, better. David Thompson is a genius! Why hadn’t I discovered his recipes earlier? The soup itself was a little murkier than I’d like – but that was due in part to the type of ready-made tamarind water I used (a second attempt with tamarind water made from soaking and straining dried tamarind yielded a cleaner broth). Although the flavours are complex and multifaceted, I could clearly pick out the flavours of tangy lemongrass, galangal and kaffir lime leaves. The lime juice gives the soup one part of its sourness and tamarind water provides the other, but with notes of extra sweetness. The prawns were just cooked through and their flavour was unmistakable throughout the soup.
It was so good in fact that I’ve already made it 4 times now and is fast becoming a permanent staple in our recipe repertoire.
If you like tom yum you have to give this recipe a go – the stark simplicity of this recipe will ensure you’ll never go back to pre-made tom yum pastes or savour a restaurant-made tom yum the same way again.
Foodie in the know:
Most of the ingredients required in this recipe can be found in Thai or South-east Asian groceries like the ones in Thainatown, on Campbell St, near Chinatown in Sydney. It sounds like I’m stating the obvious, but Thai groceries are the best source of ingredients for Thai recipes – not just because there’s a good chance you’ll find all the ingredients centralised in one spot – but because here even common, widely available ingredients like coriander are specially selected for Thai recipes. The aromatic coriander root frequently appears in recipes and you’ll find the root on coriander stocked at Thai groceries is much more generous than most Western green grocers or supermarkets or even many Asian groceries where most of the root is all but gone. For readers in Sydney, Pontip Grocery at 16 Campbell St, Sydney is an excellent source for Thai cooks and stocked all the fresh ingredients required for this dish – right down to the roasted chilli powder and green bird’s eye chillies.