One of the first things one discovers when getting into a food-geek conversation with me is that I am a huge fan of Asian cuisines. I’m not quite sure how it happened, as I have never (yet) lived anywhere in Asia. But I did grow up in the suburbs of New York City, the proverbial cultural melting pot, and the cuisines of all those cultures made a huge impression on me. Since then I have lived in a number of other US cities with a variety of Asian emigre communities, including Boston, Seattle, and now San Diego. With the aid of cookbooks, patient friends both online and real-life, and innumerable visits to shops and restaurants, I have taught myself a few things about cooking in these delightful food traditions. And one of my favorite learnings is how to make a good authentic tom yum goong.
There are two ingredients that really “make” this soup: the head-on shell-on shrimp and the nam prik pao (one of the many varieties of Thai seasoning pastes). It is undeniably labor-intensive to remove the heads and shells from all those shrimp, but one taste of the heavenly broth you make from the heads and shells and you’ll know it was worth it. Do make sure you get the absolutely freshest shrimp you can, preferably buying them the same day you will be making the soup and storing them on a well-drained bed of ice in the fridge until you’re ready to prep them.
The challenge with the nam prik pao is for non-readers of Thai to identify it in their local Asian grocery store. You will find jars labeled something like “Tom Yum Paste” — that’s not what you want, however, but a short-cut “instant” soup base. Alas, what you do want is a little harder to identify, because the English labeling will say something insufficiently clear, like “roasted chilli paste.” Fortunately, I discovered that Pantainorasingh makes a popular and very tasty version of the stuff, and their label is easy to pick out–it has a long dragon boat on it, plus the English text “chili paste with soya bean oil” (picture here). The Pantainorasingh brand actually has only a mild chile kick–mostly it’s super-savory, and a bit sweet, and incredibly addictive (yes, I have gleefully eaten it by the spoonful).
One other ingredient note: palm sugar typically comes in rock-hard lozenges about 2 inches in diameter. Use whatever method you can come up with to break up the lozenges. I’ve resorted to putting a few inside a clean pillowcase and pounding them with a hammer till pulverized. You can substitute brown cane sugar if you prefer not to be whacking at your ingredients, but the palm sugar has a distinctive tang that I think really adds something to the final product.
Servings: 8 as the soup course of a full dinner, or 4 as a main entree
- 1-1/2 lb large shrimp with heads and shells intact
- 2 stalks lemongrass
- 3 to 4 cloves garlic
- 1 chunk ginger or galangal root the size of your thumb
- 4 fresh kaffir lime leaves
- The juice of 4 limes
- Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce, to taste
- palm sugar, to taste (approx. 2 to 3 tbs; )
- fresh Thai red chilies, to taste (caution, extremely hot–as few as 1 or 2 might do unless you’re a chile freak)
- nam prik pao, to taste (approx 2 to 4 tbs)
- 2 15 oz. cans straw mushrooms
- Extra chicken, fish, or vegetable broth as needed
- 1 big handful cilantro leaves (removed from stems)
A small sharp pointed scissors is very helpful in shelling and deveining the shrimp a little more quickly.
1. Remove the heads and shells from the shrimp: Work over a bowl to catch the juices, taking care not to get your hands stabbed by the sharp points on the shrimps’ heads and tails. To remove the head, grasp the shrimp’s body in one hand, the head in the other, and just snap or pull the head off. To shell and devein in one step, insert one blade of the scissors right at the point where the vein peeks out from the body and snip right through the shrimp’s back, shell and all, the full length of the shrimp; then pull the meat free from the shell and tail. The vein is left exposed for easy removal; pull it free with the tip of the scissors and discard. Rinse the cleaned shrimp briefly in cool water, pat dry, and return to the fridge until you’re ready to use them. Reserve the heads and shells, as well as the juices you caught in the workbowl.
2. Put the heads, shells, and shrimp juices in a stockpot with water to cover. Add one stalk of lemongrass, sliced (discard the straw-like top part); 3-4 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly crushed; and a chunk of fresh ginger or galangal root the size of your thumb, sliced (don’t bother to peel this). Bring to a boil, back it down to a low simmer, cover, and let simmer for a good hour or so, stirring occasionally. Strain the broth through a fine sieve, smooshing the shells and heads a bit to get at least some of the remaining liquid out. Discard the shells and other detritus.
3. Measure the resulting broth, and add some of your backup broth as needed to bring the total volume of broth up to about 8 cups. Drain the straw mushrooms; discard the liquid, as it will probably be too tinny-tasting to use in the soup. Halve the bigger shrooms lengthwise so they better match the smaller ones; add them to the soup. Also add 4 to 8 kaffir lime leaves, depending on size, and the second stalk of lemongrass, sliced up, dry top discarded. Bring up to simmering temperature, cover, and let cook together for awhile till the lemongrass and lime leaves have had a chance to release their flavors.
4. You’re now going to do a flavor-balancing act with the fish sauce, limes, palm sugar, nam prik pao, and chiles, adding and tasting till you like the combo of salty/sour/sweet/spicy. My suggestion would be to start with a big spoonful of the nam prik pao–make sure it’s well dissolved into the simmering soup–and maybe one or two chiles, sliced and deseeded. (Wear gloves when cutting up the chiles–and if you’re a chile-head, by all means add more than one or two to start!) Then a couple tablespoons of the fish sauce. Then alternate lime juice and sugar, a little at a time, tasting as you go till you can taste both sweet and sour. Then readjust the savory and hot seasonings as needed. Repeat till you’re happy with the result.
(Many recipes say to wait to add the nam prik pao until the soup is served, putting a spoonful in the bottom of the bowl and ladling the soup on top to dissolve it. I find it easier to get the flavors balanced if I add the nam prik pao at the same time at the same time as the other seasonings. You can always offer the nam prik pao, and other condiments, at table for anyone who wants to adjust their soup further.)
5. Maybe ten minutes before serving the soup, bring it just up to a boil and drop in the shrimp. Bring it back up to a lively simmer, and cook until the shrimp are just cooked through–don’t overcook! Pour into a tureen, drop in the handful of cilantro leaves, and serve. (Make sure your guests know that the kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass are not meant to be eaten!)
–posted by Denny Kozlov