Monday, November 28, 2011
Growing up, I was lucky to have parents who not only cooked well, but never stopped their children from experimenting with food from other cultures. My late father himself loved Indian mutton curry, nasi lemak, beef rendang and a good spicy curry laksa - you see a pattern here, I know. I'm pretty sure my inclination towards spicy food came from him, as my mother, though she loves chili, has neither the tongue nor the stomach for a great deal of it. For a Hakka Chinese family, we ate a great deal of homemade curries and sambal - I once was sent to the emergency room to remove a tiny sliver of lemongrass stuck to the back of my throat. Thus Thai food is no stranger to my diet, and staying in Singapore now makes me miss good Thai from time to time. With a great deal of Thais residing in or marrying into the Malaysian population, my hometown in Kuala Lumpur is practically a Thai cuisine haven. From roadside stalls and mid-range setups to posh restaurants, it is still fairly easy to score a respectable tom yam, raw papaya salad, Thai green curry, noodle salad, pad thai or mango rice pudding when the urge for something way up north kicks in.
During my university years, I lived in campus where each residential hostel has its own late night stalls to cater for hungry students sleeping late after burning the midnight oil. My student college was blessed with a stall operated by a couple of Siamese cooks and let's just say over the four years I was in University of Malaya, a steaming bowl of hot tom yam was really my equivalent of chicken soup for the soul. Towards the final years of my studies, nightly trips out of campus became a ritual. I was also in luck to have a roommate who shared my affliction of love for chilies. In case you're curious to know how messed up we were, let me illustrate - we used to spike our instant noodles and chili tuna sandwiches with birds eye chilies. Once, when we ran out, we went to
Good food brings back memories, and I was reminded of all this when I first had Ibrahim's tom yam kung. Made by my friend Najah, it was thickened with coconut milk, spicy enough to make me sweat and sniffle - just like those nights out in Damansara Uptown years ago - and served over rolls of tagliatelle instead of rice or noodles. Before long, I met Ibrahim, made Najah cook more of his tom yam whenever I dropped by (which was often) and extracted the recipe out of her. That was more than two years ago, as the date of Najah's email indicated. Some recipes are easy to procrastinate over, this one is, especially - as someone else is always making it. I don't even have to bribe Najah with desserts.
Two weeks ago, I finally got my act together and attempted my first tom yam at home. The paste was prepared the night before. The next day Vijay smeared some over his sourdough before I even used it to make the broth. Later for dinner, it began to rain. We got a friend over to share some heat and she polished off her bowl quite quickly despite feeling unwell earlier. I can see now why Najah makes this so often. Once the paste, which can be made ahead in bulk, is gotten out of the way, a pot of comfort, spice and nostalgia is really only a matter of minutes away. So if you're into things like birds eye chilies, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, fish sauce and you-know-what-else, don't do what I did and wait two years to make this.
Ibrahim's Tom Yam Kung (ต้มยำกุ้ง) [Printer Friendly Version]
Recipe adapted from Ibrahim Alsagoff with additional tom yam kung tips from no other than Leela Punyaratabandhu's SheSimmers - How to Make Tom Yam: Tom Yam 101 - Part One and Tom Yam Kung (ต้มยำกุ้ง) with Video.
Notes: The key point in an excellent tom yam kung in my opinion is not to overcook the prawns and boil the fragrant herbs to death. If you're using mushrooms which takes longer to cook than the ones here (for example white or Swiss brown), do add them along with the chicken instead of the prawns. As Leela mentioned, this version is a Nam Khon (creamy broth), you may skip the coconut milk for a Nam Sai (clear broth) or replace it with the more health friendly evaporated milk.
While I've applied some ingredients and method from Leela's approach, this recipe is very much localized so I'm not vouching it as something you would fine in the streets of Thailand, having not been there myself. The tom yam paste here is really a little bit of a Nam Prik Pao (น้ำพริกเผา - Thai Chili Jam), albeit simplified. I am intrigued though, to one day make the Nam Prik Pao using one of Leela's two approach, as nothing excites me more than a versatile jar of spicy chili condiment for those week night quick dinners.
For the prawn stock:
- 3 1/2 cups chicken/fish stock
- 4 pieces kaffir lime leaves
- 2 stalks lemongrass, white parts only, smashed
- 3 inches ginger, thinly sliced
- 15-18 large prawns, peeled and cleaned, shells and heads reserved
For the tom yam paste:
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 2 inches galangal, finely chopped
- 3 inches ginger, finely chopped
- 250 grams chili paste (from soaked, deseeded and blended dry chilies)
- 4 pieces kaffir lime leaves, finely chopped
- 2 stalks lemongrass, white parts only, finely chopped
- 2 teaspoons ground coriander
- 20 grams shrimp paste (or more to taste)
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1 cup tamarind pulp water
- 3 tablespoons brown sugar
- vegetable oil for frying
- 2 tablespoons ground turmeric
- 2 tablespoons lime juice (or to taste)
- 4 pieces kaffir lime leaves
- 1 stalk lemongrass, white parts only, smashed
- 2 boneless chicken thighs, sliced thinly, marinate with some oil and white pepper
- 150 grams frozen crab meat, thawed (optional)
- 250 milliliters coconut milk
- 300 grams phoenix oyster mushrooms
- 250 grams straw mushrooms
- 250 grams enokitake mushrooms (optional)
- fish sauce to taste
- 3 sprigs fresh basil, chopped, reserve some for garnish
- 2 bunches coriander, chopped, reserve some for garnish
- 2 stalks spring onion, chopped, reserve some for garnish
Prepare the prawn stock: Bring the chicken/fish stock to a boil in a medium pot. Add in the kaffir lime leaves, stalks lemongrass and ginger, stir briefly. Add in reserved heads and shells of the cleaned prawns. Simmer on medium low heat for at least 20 minutes or up to 30 minutes. Set aside to cool, drain just before using.
Prepare the tom yam paste: Heat up tablespoons of oil over high heat. Add in onion, garlic, galangal and ginger, fry till softened and slightly brown. Remove and set aside, leaving the leftover oil in the pan. In the same frying pan, add in the chili paste, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, coriander, shrimp paste, fish sauce, tamarind water and sugar. Cook till mixture thickens slightly. Return the fried onion, garlic and ginger to the pan. Fry till paste is thick and oil from the chili surfaces. Set aside. The paste keeps sealed in the refrigerator for 1 week or freezer for months.
Prepare the tom yam broth: Heat up a medium pot with one tablespoon of oil. Over medium heat, add the prepared tom yam paste and ground turmeric. Fry for about 1 minute. Add in the prepared prawn stock, lime juice, the remaining kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass. Stir to incorporate. Add in the chicken pieces and crab meat (if using). Bring the broth to a boil. Once broth comes to a boil, add in the coconut milk, stir briefly and reduce heat back to medium low so that broth is gently simmering.
Add in the prawns and mushrooms. Cook till prawns firm up and turn just opaque, about 2 minutes. Turn of heat and check the seasoning, adjusting with more lime juice or fish sauce if required. Let the broth cool down a little, and then add in the chopped herbs and spring onion. Serve immediately over cooked rice, egg/laksa noodles or pasta (here I used angel hair/capellini). Garnish with more fresh coriander, basil and spring onion.
Do ahead: The tom yam paste can be made ahead, bottled and chilled. (I actually doubled the paste recipe to have a bottle for next time.) If you're entertaining, you can also marinate the chicken and make the prawn stock the day before (keep the peeled prawns fresh covered under cubes of ice in the fridge). It takes less than 15 minutes to put the broth together once the rest of the components are ready to go.
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