Yuck. I’m sick. (*whine, whine, whine*)
I have some kind of sore throat, stuffy nose, achey sinus thing and I feel gross all over. When I feel this way, there is only one food I want: Tom Yum soup. Lovely clear broth so it’s light on the system, lots of heat to open up those sinuses, enough veggies and tofu that my body has some fuel to keep going. And that lilting, incomparable flavor – lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves and lime juice – like sweet-and-sour refined and taken to the pinnacle of possibility.
Usually when I’m sick I get a big tub of it from the Thai place down the street, but lately their tubs have been shrinking and besides we had take-out from them last night, before I knew I would be sick and require my Tom Yum fix. So I decided to try to make my own version, figuring if I could at least hit the basic notes – acid, heat, sweet – I would get a similar medicinal effect if not the exact flavors. I started surfing the web for ideas and it quickly became clear that I had one major problem: no lemongrass.
You can’t make Tom Yum soup without lemongrass. It would just be some other kind of soup. And you can’t really make lemongrass flavor from something else, either. But then in my web travels I came across an old Slashfood post called “Semi-homemade: Tom Yum” that sang the praises of using prepared Tom Yum paste (that the author buys, coincidentally, at my favorite Asian-foods market here in SF) to whip up a bowl of Tom Yum in minutes. No need to keep lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, etc., around the house at all times. All very well and good, only I didn’t have any prepared Tom Yum paste, either. Or did I?
I did a search for Tom Yum paste and found the ingredients: Lemongrass, soya bean oil, onion, salt, chili, water, galangal, lime juice, sugar, garlic, msg, kaffir lime leaves, shrimp extract flavor, citric acid. Leaving aside the fillers and the non-veg ingredients, I realized Tom Yum paste was an awful lot like the homemade yellow curry paste I had sitting in my freezer.
See, I love those little jars of red and green curry paste made by Thai Kitchen. I find them perfectly acceptable for making curry at home. But my favorite, above all other Thai dishes, is yellow curry, and I have been unable to find prepared yellow curry paste anywhere. So last summer I found a wonderful recipe from Jugalbandi, bit the bullet, and made my own yellow curry paste (more complicated in the ingredient-gathering than the actual preparation) and ended up with an extra 1/4 cup wrapped in wax paper in my freezer.
The soup itself was a very improvised affair. I’m not going to bother with giving a recipe, because if you have the ingredients around to make curry paste from scratch, which you would have to do in order to reproduce my version of the soup, then you might as well make actual Tom Yum soup from scratch. And if you are using a prepared Tom Yum paste, your flavorings may be completely different and the proportions of lime juice, etc., that I used won’t be very helpful.
I’ll sketch a basic outline, though, in case you happen to have some yellow curry paste around and feel like making Tom Yum soup with it.
Vegetarian Tom Yum Soup from Yellow Curry Paste
Bring 4 cups broth plus 2 cups water to a simmer and add 1/4 cup yellow curry paste. I threw in 3 large kaffir lime leaves I had in my freezer as well. At this point I also added half a pack of firm tofu, cubed. The tofu comes out pretty bland, but that’s part of the Tom Yum experience for me. Simmer everything for 5 or so minutes. Then add half an onion, thinly sliced, 1 carrot, thinly sliced on the diagonal, a few sliced shitake mushrooms (already soaked in hot water for 30 minutes), half a can of sliced water chestnuts, and some frozen peas. If you have canned straw mushrooms, canned baby corn, button mushrooms, and/or baby bok choy, these would all be yummy to add. Cook for a few minutes, then add a tomato, sliced into thin wedges. Also add lime juice (at least 1 lime’s worth – I use a plastic squeezie lime), and a little mirin or sugar. Season to taste using lime juice, mirin or sugar, and a tiny bit of soy sauce if necessary (I do not like soy sauce in my Tom Yum, but Duck loves it). Serve immediately, plain or over cooked rice noodles, topped with full stalks of cilantro if you have it.