Tom Yum Goong with homemade Nam Prik Pao... Otherwise known as Hot and Sour Soup with Prawns, and homemade Roasted Chile Paste. This soup is a classic of Thai cuisine, and for me, is warming to the body and the soul. Tom Yum embraces the traditional flavors of sour and spicy, with an added saltiness and a fragrance of fresh herbs that I love.
I was inspired to make Tom Yum when my friend Steve gave me fresh lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves from his parent's garden. I was excited because I had never used kaffir lime leaves before, although I knew they were essential for Thai cooking. Since Steve has a strong Asian heritage, we discussed how I could use these ingredients in the most authentic way, and decided that Tom Yum was the perfect dish.
Once I started looking through Tom Yum recipes, I quickly realized that although the soup itself is simple, the ingredients and different components are complex. I decided I needed to do a little research (remember, I am scientist, this is my specialty). I searched the internet and checked out some books on Thai cuisine from the library, and discovered that if I really wanted my soup to be authentic and have the best taste, I needed to make my own Roasted Chile Paste.
Roasted Chile Paste, or Nam Prik Pao, is what gives Tom Yum its characteristic 'hot' flavor. Prik means chile, and Nam Prik together means chile sauce; when the chiles are prepared by the traditional Thai method of dry roasting (Pao, or pow), the condiment is called Nam Prik Pao. Dry roasting involves cooking the chiles in a hot skillet or wok without any liquid or oil. This causes them to become browned, just shy of burnt, and produces a deep smoky flavor. The chiles used to make Nam Prik Pao vary from mild varieties such as Anaheim, to very spicy varieties such as De Arbol or Japones. To make the chile paste, the roasted chiles are ground to a powder, and added to oil along with fine bits of fried garlic and shallots, as well as fish oil, shrimp paste, and tamarind.
I was able to find everything that I needed to make the soup as well as the chile sauce, with the exception of tamarind paste. Tamarind is the edible fruit from the seed pod of the tamarind tree. Basically, the seeds are encased by a fleshy pulp that has a taste that is often sour but sometimes sweet, and as such, tamarind is another classic Thai ingredient used to impart sour flavoring. You can buy tamarind paste pre-made, or you can purchase compressed blocks of wet tamarind and make your own paste by combining the tamarind with water (I used 12 ounces of block tamarind with 2 cups of water) and working the pulp with your hands to produce a paste.
Once I had the tamarind paste ready to go, I started working with the peppers. I think it is important to mention two things at this point:
1. Apparently dry roasting the peppers produces quite a strong, pungent smell. In fact, in 2007, the British police were alerted to the possibility of a terrorist chemical attack in Soho, London, when a local Thai restaurant was roasting chiles. Local residents called emergency services when they started coughing and said "something was really dodgy." Don't start getting worried, I opened all my windows when I was making this and no police were called to my residence.
2. Despite the sage wisdom that I shared with you above about the spiciness of different chiles, I was not yet privy to that information when I did my shopping. If I was, I probably would have bought the Anaheim chiles; instead, I made the fiery-hot choice of the Japones chiles. Obviously a smart move.
After roasting, the recipe I was working from suggested to cut off the tops of the chiles, and to remove the membranes and seeds. Ok, sounds easy enough. Except, the chiles were only about 1-3 inches in size, and there were about 80 of them. I rolled up my sleeves (literally) and got to work.
After dealing with about half of them, my eyes were getting a little sensitive and my nose was itching. By instinct I rubbed my it with my forearm... and... I essentially snorted up all the chile dust that had settled on my arm while I was chopping. Yikes! BAD idea. My nostrils felt like they were on fire! I hurried to finish chopping the chiles, so I could be done and move on. Finally, when everything settled down (and I put out the fire in my nose), I was able to finish up with making the roasted chile paste.
I fried garlic, shallots, and pungent shrimp paste; I flavored it with tamarind; and I carefully added my ground roasted chiles. When all was said and done, I had managed to made a near-perfect Nam Prik Pao, and it has some serious heat.
Once I had the Nam Prik Pao in house, the soup was a breeze to throw together and it gave me the chance to work with white saltwater prawns. If you want to be technical about it, prawns are essentially just large versions of shrimp, and often come with shells and heads still intact. To make the soup in the most authentic way, Thais use the delicious, red-orange fat from inside the head of the prawn to add additional flavor to the soup.
If you are a little skeeved out by prawns and shrimp (and I know some of you are), I hope these photos won't bother you, because I think these crustaceans are totally cool. And, because I am a scientist and this is biology, I made a cute little diagram for those of you (like me) that are new to working with prawns.
Not so scary right? I will spare you the guts and gore, but suffice it to say I now have an expert technique for removing the heads and extracting the fat from the heads of the prawns.
I know that everything I detailed here might seem like a lot of work, but once you have the chili paste made/purchased from store and your prawns, you will have your soup ready in under 20 minutes. And here is what I can tell you: This Tom Yum Goong is supremely satisfying and the flavors are bold. The scent of the fresh herbs wafting off the steaming bowl of soup was completely intoxicating, and I could barely wait for it to cool before I tried it. When I tasted the soup, the spicy chile flavor hit my tongue first, followed by a perfect sour and salty balance from the fish sauce and the underlying flavors of the broth. Even the color was totally beautiful, much like the fiery-orange sun just before it dips below the horizon. And of course, garnishing the soup with cilantro took it over the top for me.
Making everything for this soup from scratch was an incredible and authentic cooking experience, and if you are feeling adventurous, I would highly recommend it. Now that I have my own homemade Nam Prik Pao, I know that I definitely will be making Tom Yum Goong again and again. Especially as the weather gets cooler, if I need a warm, healing bowl of soup, this will be at the top of my list.
***This is my second entry for the Project Food Blog challenge. I advanced to the second round in this contest, and I am SO appreciative for all the votes and support that I received! For the second challenge we were asked to pick an ethnic classic that we are not as familiar with, and to try to keep the dish as authentic as the real deal. For this dish, I did a lot of research to make everything according to Thai cooking traditions, and I think my results were fantastic. If you feel my dish is a good representation for this challenge I would love your votes! You can check out my profile on Foodbuzz and vote starting 8AM PST, on Monday September 27th.
*(Update, 9/29/10: per comments below, I submitted this to the Grow Your Own monthly round-up! Check out the info here.)
Tom Yum Goong (Thai Hot and Sour Soup with Prawns)
Recipe adapted from Cracking the Coconut: Classic Thai Home Cooking, Chez Pim, and Dancing Shrimp: Favorite Thai Recipes for Seafood
1 lb white prawns, heads still attached
6 cups water
8 kaffir lime leaves, divided; 'bruised' with a mortar and pestle, or your hands
4 stalks lemongrass, divided; outer leaves discarded, and cut into 1-inch pieces (cut on a diagonal to expose as much inner area as possible)
3-4 slices of galangal (white ginger)
2 cups sliced button mushrooms
Juice from 3 medium limes
1/4 cup fish sauce
Nam Prik Pao to taste, recipe here, I added about 1 tbsp
Chopped cilantro for garnish
First prepare the prawns by rinsing them. To remove the heads from the body, I would suggest holding the head with the fingers of your right hand and the body in your left; twist the head from the body with your right hand moving away from you and your left hand moving towards you. Then, squeeze the red fat from the head into a small bowl (keep the fat), and reserve the head. Remove the shells from the body of the prawns, leaving the tails attached if you like. Reserve the shells as well, then devein the shrimp and set it aside.
Next make the stock. In a large pot, combine the water, 4 kaffir lime leaves, 2 stalks worth of cut lemongrass, galangal, and reserved prawn heads and shells. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 5-10 minutes. Strain soup through a fine mesh sieve or colander, and return stock to the pot.
To prepare the soup, bring the stock back to a boil, then add the rest of the lime leaves, lemongrass, reserved red fat, and mushrooms. Simmer for a few minutes to soften the mushrooms, then add the prawns and cook for just a few minutes more. (If you overcook the prawns they will become tough and rubbery.) Remove the soup from the heat, add the lime juice, fish sauce, and Nam Prik Pao to taste. Serve immediately, topped with cilantro for garnish.
-If you want to make this soup a less traditional way, you could substitute chicken stock and flavor with the herbs listed, and use small shrimp that is already peeled and deveined. The taste won't be as good, but this is a way to adapt the recipe if you like.