The hot and sour Thai soup known as tom yum is a classic example of the vibrant, flavorful dishes that Thai cuisine is famous for. The heat comes from chiles and galangal (also known as Thai ginger), the sour from lime juice and tamarind (a dark, tart fruit). But tom yum doesn’t stop there: It also serves up saltiness courtesy of fish sauce and sweetness via a touch of sugar. Lemongrass, makrut lime leaves, cilantro, and Thai basil round out the fragrant bowl.
There are many versions of tom yum soup, but my favorite, known as guy tiew tom yum goong, is chock-full of shrimp, rice noodles, and sometimes mushrooms and/or tomatoes and topped with a deeply savory, sweet, and spicy chili jam. As a light main course, it’s very satisfying. Stick with me and it will be your favorite, too.
Traditional recipes either start by calling for simmering pork bones in water or they simply use plain water, whereas nontraditional versions call for store-bought chicken broth. A time-consuming stock didn’t fit with my weeknight-friendly plans, so I tested chicken broth versus water. Broth was preferred for its depth.
Next, I looked to infuse the broth with some of Thailand’s signature ingredients: lemongrass, makrut lime leaves, scallion whites, galangal, and Thai chiles. But when I simply sliced the aromatics and simmered them in the broth, it took more than an hour to extract sufficient flavor. On the other hand, pulsing the ingredients in a food processor not only made the broth unpleasantly intense but also required straining, which was a hassle. Ultimately, it made sense to do as Thai cooks do: I sliced the aromatics and then lightly smashed them to partially break them down (see “A Smashing Way to Build Flavor”). With this approach, the broth developed a heady perfume after just 15 minutes of simmering, and the pieces could easily be removed using a slotted spoon. Sugar and fish sauce rounded things out with sweetness and saltiness.
To bulk up the soup, I stirred in fresh oyster mushrooms and the grassy green parts of the scallions. They would soften in the hot broth to add texture, and their mild flavors would offset the bold ones.
Next, I slipped a pound of peeled large shrimp into the steaming broth off the heat for 5 minutes. The residual heat ensured that the shrimp gently cooked through with little risk of turning rubbery. Halved cherry tomatoes added pops of color and another layer of acidity and sweetness, and a healthy squeeze of lime juice delivered the sour flourish that is a hallmark of guay tiew tom yum goong.
As I ladled the soup over rice noodles that I had “cooked” by soaking them in boiling water, I was rewarded with a complex aroma rising from the bowls. Topped with fresh cilantro, Thai basil, and sliced Thai chiles, my soup was nearly ready.
In a final nod to tradition, I topped each bowl with a crimson dollop of Nam prik pao (Thai chili jam, so called because of its jammy consistency), a rich, sweet, savory, and slightly spicy condiment of fried garlic, shallots, and dried chiles cooked down with fish sauce and brown sugar. As I watched the smiling faces of my tasters slurping from their bowls, I knew my work was done.
This version of tom yum soup features hot, sour, salty, and sweet flavors, with shrimp and tender rice noodles to make it a meal.