Appropriately in line with the designs of the cosmos, this Lunar New Year has hailed a new sense of self. My understanding of my personality has changed, and with that came a newfound confidence in ability. The impetus for change was a holiday trip to Thailand and enrollment in my first ever cooking class. It’s made an honest woman of me in terms of adding classroom experience to passion and self study as I’ve feigned expertise for the last year and more in this column. I signed up in hopes of learning the secret to making an authentic tom yum (spicy and sour) soup.
What I sought were secrets, but what I found was validation. As someone who always yearned to write the next great novel, yet excelled at technical editing; as someone who studied classical piano for seven years, yet has no ability sit down sans sheet music and putter around; I wrote my personality off a long time ago as analytical but not creative—a totally left-brained kind of gal. In the kitchen that translated into believing that cooking from recipes resulted in “real” dishes. It was another extension of my left-brained need for predetermined structure. At the same time, I’d always felt that the haphazard making up that I’d do when not following recipes was more an achievement in convenience than culinary talent.
What I sought were secrets, but what I found was validation.
Yet, I had never stopped to consider that what I do in the kitchen might just be that creative outlet I’ve always sought. Finally taking a cooking class taught me that being rogue is what cooking is all about anyway – in fact, it’s the very essence of culinary talent. The ways I compensate for my lack of instruction or a lack of specific ingredients definitely pull from another part of my thinking machine. And so it has been for my ever-changing tom yum soup recipe.
Tom yum soup is one of the most recognized dishes from Thailand, and I’ve tried many times to mimic the versions I’d try in restaurants, only to be off every time. At some point I decided it was impossible to obtain authenticity and that I should just make my own “somewhat like tom yum” recipe. I’d resigned myself to the thought that only Thai people can make it as it should be, as if they have some inherent, invisible secret ingredient seeping from their pores and flavoring the very air in which a proper tom yum is made.
When I took the cooking class, I was given a cookbook with various Thai recipes, and the first thing I noticed was how simple the tom yum soup recipe was. I saw no coconut cream or milk, no specific type of mushroom listed, and not even ginger, which I’d assumed was essential. I asked the head chef about these differences only to be told that tom yum is like my culture’s chicken noodle soup. Foundationally, it’s very basic. Everyone has preferences for the noodles, which cut and how much chicken to use and so on. Usually grandma’s variation takes the cake when asking most people for their favorite recipe, simply because it’s what they’ve most been exposed to.
Then it hit me. My method, which I’d made up to compensate for a lack of fresh authentic Thai ingredients, still resulted in tom yum. Although different, and slightly more complicated, the result is an identifiable infusion of the flavors you find in Thailand. It’ll never taste exactly the same, but it gets pretty close. And, since feeling validated in my abilities as a chef, I’m perfectly OK with “pretty close.”
It was the same for all the dishes I learned to make in that cooking class. The chef would teach us a technique, tell us how various ingredients affect the overall flavor and then let us loose to make decisions for ourselves. As the course progressed, I realized that a lot of what you learn in the culinary classroom is tricks and short-cuts. Taste is reliant upon individual interpretation, and good taste is always the endgame. I’m no master chef, but I’ve finally figured out that my ability to create good flavors without strict instruction to draw upon is the result of ingenuity. For all my desire to be a better musician or a more engaging writer, I’ve had a creative outlet all along.
If you can’t find all of these ingredients, don’t worry. Use what you can. Try making it with and without coconut cream. The only things a tom yum absolutely needs are fish sauce, to add the sour flavor, and some element of spicy or sweet (or both) flavor to contrast with the sour. Additionally, I like eating soup without having to spoon around inedible flavoring ingredients. So, I remove them. If you prefer a more traditional soup, reserve some in the liquid in the second step.
Tom Yum Gai/Goong (with chicken or shrimp)
• 2 stalks lemongrass, sliced diagonally
• 4 centimeter piece of ginger, sliced
• 2-4 dried or fresh kaffir lime leaves
• 6 Thai chilies, or spicy chilies, sliced diagonally
• I bulb of garlic cloves peeled and halved
• 6 cups water or chicken broth or both
• 3 tomatoes, sliced in 8 wedges each
• I0-15 button mushrooms, stems removed, cap quartered
• 20-30 fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined, with shells reserved, or 1 large chicken breast, cut into bite-sized pieces
1. Bring water or broth to a boil. Add lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, ginger, half of garlic, half of chilies and one tomato to boil. If using, add shrimp shells. Let simmer for at least 30 minutes.
2. With a large slotted spoon, remove all solid ingredients from the soup and discard. If using, stir in the package of tom yum soup paste.
3. Add mushrooms, the remaining tomatoes, and remaining garlic and chilies to the pot. Bring to boil and simmer about 5 minutes. Add shrimp or chicken. If using, add sugar.
4. When meat is cooked thoroughly, add coconut cream if using, and then fish sauce and lime juice. Add more to taste if needed. Remove from heat and serve with basil and or cilantro.