Bangkok, 23 November 2014
I must say, I am feeling very pleased with myself. When my wife and I first arrived in Bangkok, we did the time-honored thing of scouting out local culinary delicacies to taste. One that intrigued me was Tom Yum soup. It is described as a “clear spicy and sour soup”. It was the sour part that interested me. Sour soup …. What a fascinating concept, I had to try that. But the spicy part made me hesitate. As I have pointed out forcefully in a previous post, I hate spices, or at least hot spices like chilli. But my desire to experience the sour part trumped my distaste of the spicy part. And so I tried it.
Delicious, absolutely delicious! OK, with every spoonful I was making strange rasping sounds at the back of my throat to counteract the chillies, which after a while had my wife drumming her fingers on the table, and I had to drink iced water by the gallon to calm the fires in my mouth. But behind all this mayhem, I could sense the wonderful sourness of the soup. How was this done? I started scouring the web. The answer is: fish sauce meets lime (fruit and leaf), supported by lemongrass. As usual, different recipes add various other bits and pieces, the most common of which are shrimps, tomatoes, mushrooms, galangal (a sort of root like ginger), and coriander (as a final garnish). And of course, always, without fail, chillies.
I took a momentous decision. I was going to make Tom Yum soup WITHOUT chillies. I was going to show the correctness of a fundamental belief of mine, that hot spices actually add nothing to dishes, that food can be enjoyed quite as much without these terrible ingredients.
Today was the day. Yesterday, my wife took me to an upscale supermarket to find the necessary ingredients. I knew I was on the right track when we found that the supermarket helpfully offered packets of the core ingredients. The remaining ingredients were quickly rounded up.
This morning, after a good night’s rest, I got to work. After reviewing a number of recipes again, I decided on the course I would take, to whit:
1. Boil the water.
2. Cut several stalks of lemongrass into short segments. Bruise them so that they more easily exuded their lemony oils. Cut a few slices of galangal. Destalk the lime leaves and cut them up a bit. Squeeze the limes and collect the juice.
3. Ostentatiously throw away the chillies, the ones that the supermarket had added to the pre-packed set of ingredients.
4. Add 2 tablespoons of fish sauce to the boiling water. Add the juice of 2 squeezed limes. Add the lemongrass segments, the slices of galangal, the lime leaves. Bring to a boil. let simmer for a while.
5. Add the mushrooms and the tomatoes. Bring back to a boil and let simmer a bit.
6. Taste. Feel the panic rise because the soup is not nearly sour enough. Add 3 more tablespoons of fish sauce and the juice of 2 more limes. Let simmer. Taste again. Better, but not there yet. Add 2 tablespoons of fish sauce and 1 more lime. Simmer. Taste. That’s better! Now we have that sourness!
7. Add half a dozen shrimps, cook briefly.
8. Serve, spreading chopped coriander on the surface as garnish.
We ate it with a side-dish of rice my wife made.
My wife was the official taster. She pronounced the soup to be absolutely delicious, and declared that the chillies weren’t missed at all. She concluded that henceforth I could be considered the official family provider of (chilliless) Tom Yum soup, along with mashed potatoes (my speciality). My breast swelled with pride.
Now that a few hours have passed and I have reflected on the experience, I would say a few things. First and foremost, I was right: you don’t need chillies! I will now attack various other dishes which I would like very much were it not for the spices that cooks insist on adding (maybe I should make a web-site of this culinary crusade of mine). Second, I think I panicked and made the soup too sour. It was really good at the first spoonful but beginning to get too much by the last. A lighter touch would have carried me through effortlessly to the end. Third, I wonder if something other than shrimps could be used. Their taste really gets lost in the sourness. I have to think about this one a bit. Fourth, I think I have to adopt the European habit of putting the ingredients you won’t eat in a muslin bag. It kind of takes away from the pleasure of eating to have to pile up the lemongrass segments, galangal slices, and lime leaves on the table cloth as you go along. Fifth, I think I should go easy on the coriander the next time. In fact, I might try parsley instead. Sixth and lastly, when I get back to Europe what am I going to use instead of limes? Lemon? Mandarin? Orange? I’m going to have to think about this one too.
Oh, in all the excitement, I haven’t added a photo of the soup. In our haste to try it, neither my wife nor I took a photo of my creation. And I hesitate to take one from the web, because they all are of soups made with chillies. But what the hell, here is a photo.
Also, one day I will write a post on how I make mashed potatoes. Promised.
Tom Yum soup: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-oRNilG7HYh8/T7-q1Kg0suI/AAAAAAAAA_k/Z8gykr2ZYtU/s1600/tom-yam-soup-chef-duminda-2012.jpg (in http://cook-with-chef-duminda.blogspot.com/2012/05/tom-yam-soup.html)