Tangy Coconut Tom Yum soup
with fresh thai herbs & chicken or shrimp
Tom Kha Gai or Tom Yum
Let’s talk about how to make the many variations of probably my favorite soup of all time!
“Tom” = loosely refers to cook / soup / boiling process
“Yum” = loosely refers to spicy and sour salad (and it actually comes from the Thai word, “yam,” so you may sometimes see it spelled that way, too)
“Kha” = galangal
“Gai” = chicken
“Goong” = shrimp (also sometimes spelled Kung or koong)
So, Tom Yum roughly means “spicy, sour salad soup.” Which it kind of is just that, since it has a richly flavored soup broth, lots of vegetables, herbs, bold flavors and optional protein.
We are going to discuss the recipe for both:
Tom Yum Goong/Gai = Spicy sour shrimp/chicken soup
Tom Kha Gai = Galangal chicken soup
And a combo of the two that I tend to make the most often, which I will call Tom Yum Kha Goong/Gai….or Your Umami Tom Yum
Flavor Profile: Tom Yum soup is exotic and complex-flavored with a really bold balance of sour, spicy, sweet and salty notes- but don’t let that throw you off – because at the same time, Tom Yum feels like a comfort food! Okay, it’s not like your classic macaroni and cheese comfort dish, but it’s an incredibly comforting soup with extremely well rounded, satisfying flavors and ingredients. It leaves little to be desired by the tongue!
How often do I eat this soup? I love it so much that I honestly make it almost consistently once a week! It’s a perfect lunch, but I love it for dinner or even breakfast, too. And it makes me feel great since it’s pretty much “straight health” — thanks to the lack of gluten, the lack of grain if you wish- (although I typically enjoy it with jasmine coconut rice), the (optional) inclusion of healthy fat from coconut milk, the clean boiling cooking method of the meat, and all of the fresh herbs and veggies packed into the soup.
How to eat Thai food with “inedible ingredients:” If you haven’t yet read my talk on Thai cooking: Eat Me and Don’t Eat Me Ingredients, maybe you want to pop over there for a quick skim…because with Thai food, often ingredients are added into dishes that aren’t meant to be eaten, but rather they are just cooked in with the edible ingredients to impart flavors like aromatics and spice.
This can be confusing for some people, especially from “Western” cuisine backgrounds, where usually everything that you get on your plate or in your bowl is meant to be eaten! I know that I was confused the first time that I got a bowl of Tom Yum, because I thought that I was supposed to eat the chunks of lemongrass (not exactly smooth on the tongue, lol), and all of the stiff kaffir lime leaves and disks of thick galangal! But this is not the case! You have to kind of “fish around” in your bowl for the edible components and as for the inedible aromatic ingredients, you can just spoon around them, or as my my man does~ take out and make a little pile on a napkin next to your bowl! haha, classy.
How to cut all vegetables for Thai food: Your soup will turn out fine if you chop your veggies…
Flavor-inducing ingredients: lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, lime juice
Edible vegetables in the soup: mushrooms, tomatoes, onions, (optional red peppers, green beans, mung beans) *And optional fresh young coconut meat
Meat: Chicken or shrimp (However it is okay to make vegetarian, and also there are other, less common versions with beef or pork)
I enjoy making the soup with chicken sometimes, shrimp others, or a combination of both sometimes! I also almost always cook Thai jasmine coconut rice to eat with it. Or sometimes sticky rice or just plain jasmine rice. And I like to experiment with the veggie add-ins I mentioned above…
Okay, before I keep swooning over how much I love this soup, I should explain that there are many variations of it.
The two variations we will talk about today are the most ubiquitous in Thailand, and the most delicious (as I understand at least so far): Tom Yum and Tom Kha Gai. But actually, I make a version that I guess I could call Tom Yum Kha Gai! Because I make a variant of the two since I like all of the flavors in there!
The big difference between the two soups is use of coconut milk and the Tom Yum kind of “curry” paste.
Basically, in typical Thai style, Tom Yum uses curry paste and no coconut milk, and Tom Kha Gai uses coconut milk and no curry paste. However, I like to use the curry paste and also the coconut milk.
But then again sometimes I crave the more clear and non-creamy refreshing, “clean” broth of Tom Yum, and sometimes I crave the less spiced/aromatized and more soothing coconut milk simple creaminess of Tom Kha Gai.
Okay, I’m just gonna repeat myself in more of a list-manner for those whose brains also benefit from a good recap ;0
Tom Yum paste: Yes!
Coconut milk: No, not typically…(although in my version, I like to add coconut milk- hence the Your Umami Tom Yum Recipe)!
Color of typical Thai Tom Yum: Orange-ish colored, “clear” (non-creamy) broth (the color comes from the orange-hued, Tom Yum paste (which is like other Thai Curry Pastes).
Color of the Your Umami Tom Yum Kha Gai: Orangish-white, creamy color (because it uses the orange paste and the white coconut milk. Think orange creamsicles 😉
Tom Kha Gai-
Tom Yum paste: No
Coconut milk: Yes
Color of typical Tom Kha Gai: White.
*Note: This version is often called “Tangy Coconut Soup” because it still has the same “tangy” flavors of Tom Yum, (mostly from the lime juice), and it is more predominantly “tangy” rather than the spicier Tom Yum. It doesn’t use the paste to create the flavors in the soup, but rather just gets it’s flavors from cooking the coconut milk briefly with the herbs/aromatic components (which are what comprise the more condensely flavored Tom Yum Paste: galangal, lemongrass, chili, kaffir lime leaves)
Another variation of Tom Yum:
Now that we’ve sorted the confusion between the 2 styles of cooking what I often umbrella-refer-to as “Tom Yum Soup”- I’m going to throw in another option. This is just for those who really like to know all the details (as I do when it comes to understanding other country’s cuisines).
Now this is kind of a newer fad as far as I understand. In Thailand, Tom Yum can also be made with canned evaporated milk instead of coconut milk, (and this is called Tom Yum Nam Khon)…but I don’t generally like to incorporate too much dairy milk into my cooking- especially the canned, processed kind…and I also just don’t think it’s more tasty that the coconut flavor that you get from coconut milk, which has more health benefits, too.
From what I’ve heard, it seems like many places in Thailand have started to make Tom Yum this way because people like the full flavor of Tom Yum, but also like it creamy….Hmm…is it just me or does it sound like they just need to add coconut milk instead, a la Your Umami Tom Yum Kha Gai recipe?!
Note: I also have read that Tom Yum can turn out super tasty with almond milk or half and half! So I guess you should feel free to use your favorite “milk/cream” and find Your Umami
Feel free to skim through a few more notes/tips about the dish if you want some other FAQ answers expanded on:
- History: Tom Yum originated in Central Thailand and also the bordering country of Lao. However it is widely served in neighbouring countries too! Cambodia, Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore to name a few- and is becoming popularised around the world. I had my first bowl of Tom Yum in Minneapolis, MN at a Thai restaurant actually
- In neighbouring countries like Malaysia and Singapore, the name Tom Yum is used as an umbrella term for various spicy soups which can differ greatly from the true Thai and Lao Tom Yum soup. As a result, people are often confused by the differences. Whew! I’m not the only one that is confused!
- Paste: Commercial tom yum paste is available worldwide. It is made by crushing all the herb ingredients, stir frying them in oil, and then adding any seasonings or preservatives. You can find many different brands of pastes and they each have a different flavor- so if you try one that you don’t like, it’s possible that you may love a different brand. I also Tom yum flavoured with the paste may have different characteristics from that made with fresh herb ingredients.
- Finding the ingredients: The key of tom yum is galangal, Lemon grass and Kaffir lime leaves. If you can’t find these three key items, you won’t have quite the right flavor. But you will get close if you can find ginger instead of galangal and just use lime juice instead of the Kaffir lime leaves…bay leaves are also an okay substitute- but of course will give a much less Thai authentic flavor.
- I know it is hard to find it in a grocery store. You can find them at Thai grocery stores, but trust me it’s worth it to find in a Thai grocery store. In GA I have found them in a frozen version. They still almost have the same amount of freshness (but the fresh is still the best!). Anyway If you really cannot find it, use tom yum paste or tom yum cube (but I still recommend the real thing, it tastes way better). Also the original recipe calls Num-Prik-Pow for seasoning. Num-Prick-Pow is a special Thai chili paste (Not like curry paste) and is made with dried chilis, shallots, garlic, shrimp, tamarind juice and sugar then pan fried. The paste itself has chili oil in it (comes from pan fried) tastes sweet and is not too spicy (for Thai people). A lot of Thai folk mix Num-Prik-Pow with rice and eat it with a hard boil egg and vegetables just like that. You can find it in an Asian grocery store, but if it is too much trouble to find them all just leave those ingredients out of the recipe.
- Galangal: is a sister of ginger- which can also be used if you can’t find galangal- but in this soup, galangal will give the more accurate flavor. (*I often use ginger and love it anyway!)
- Feel free to be flexible with the recipes: Typically in Thai cuisine, this soup is served more spicy when it’s a meal on it’s own, and more mild when it’s served as a side to other dishes. You choose Your Umami with this dish and spice it to your liking, add aromatics like garlic to your liking, fresh herbs to your taste, coconut milk to your desire of creaminess, and choose between vegetable, shrimp or chicken (or less commonly, pork or beef), or your preferred mix.
- Choose your style of Tom Yum soup depending on your preference for coconut milk!
- Cooking coconut milk: Be aware that if you cook the coconut milk on too high of heat and for too long it can both curdle and turn yellowish…not that this is really a bad thing…I think it’s pretty hard to curdle coconut milk, and I quite like the texture if it happens anyway! It’s not like it gets sour or too clumpy as dairy milk can. And as for the yellow color, some Thai people like it yellow colored, and so they add a little color and flavoring by adding fresh turmeric. This is an interesting taste twist to try, too.
- Deseeding the tomato: Cooking Tom Kha is a bit like doing the laundry…This is what the Thai cooking teacher explained at a class I took in Thailand: You want to avoid putting a red sock in among the white T’s. That’s why we should deseed and discard all the soft and wet parts of the tomato so the soup won’t turn pink.
- Cooking tomato and onion: When cooking Thai food we always add tomatoes and onions towards the end because we want a different taste than those ingredients create when they’re added in the beginning of the cooking- like in the Italian cuisine. They don’t actually take as long to cook as you may think,
Recipe for Tom Kha Gai aka Tangy Coconut Soup