I'm the kind of person who orders takeout just to satisfy a craving for soup. As much as I love the drunken noodles and curry of our favorite local Thai spot, what really scratches the itch when I want something sour and spicy is a hot bowl of tom yum gai.
The aromatic lemon grass soup is also what I crave to fight off the cold, whether in weather or virus form.
For years, I've been on the hunt for a recipe that captures that satisfying mouth-puckering/tingling flavor I adore, and for years I assumed this was not something I'd be able to re-create at home — at least not without a lot of work.
I've never been so happy to be wrong.
Nongkran Daks, chef and owner of Thai Basil in Chantilly, Va., happily shared a recipe with me that looked really simple. And I could hardly believe it when less than an hour after I started making it, I dipped my spoon in and tasted something that was spot on. So fast. So easy.
The ingredient list is pretty short but includes a few specialty ingredients that prompted me to take a trip to the market attached to said favorite Thai restaurant. That's not too much of a stretch for me, but because not everyone has such easy access to Asian grocery stores (or interest in adding more ingredients to the pantry), I wanted to see if I could come up with a respectable version using more readily accessible supermarket ingredients. Instead of makrut (or kaffir) lime leaves, I swapped in a couple of wide slices of lime peel. Galangal became ginger, and Thai chile paste (nam prik pao) morphed into sambal oelek, which, though Indonesian, is easier to find.
I made both versions of the soup consecutively, and my tasters agreed that each was excellent. The version with the substitutions was brighter and more citrusy, as well as spicier. The version with the specialty ingredients was more mellow but in a well-rounded way. Pick whichever suits your taste or shopping habits, or mix and match.
Shopping notes: Lemon grass is available in many supermarkets. Makrut (also known as kaffir) lime leaves, galangal and Thai chile paste are available at Asian markets. Galangal and makrut lime leaves are often found in the freezer case. Do not use dried galangal.
Spicy Lemon Grass Soup
(Tom Yum Gai)
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons fresh lime or lemon juice
1 tablespoon Thai red chile paste (nam prik pao; may substitute other chile paste such as sambal oelek)
1 stalk lemon grass, cut into 2-inch sections and crushed
6 thin slices (about ¾ ounce) galangal (may substitute fresh ginger root)
2 makrut lime leaves, torn into small pieces (may substitute a few wide strips of lime peel)
3 cups water or chicken broth
8 ounces boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut crosswise into ⅛-inch slices
½ cup mushrooms, thinly sliced
2 cherry tomatoes, each cut in half
1 green onion, white and light-green parts, thinly sliced on the diagonal
Leaves from 1 stem cilantro
Whisk together the fish sauce, lime or lemon juice and chile paste in a small bowl.
Combine the lemon grass, galangal, makrut lime leaves and water or broth in a medium saucepan over high heat. Bring to a boil; cook for 2 to 3 minutes, then use a slotted spoon to discard all the solids.
Add the chicken to the pan, making sure the pieces don't stick together (they will begin to cook as soon as they hit the liquid). Once the liquid returns to a boil, add the mushrooms and tomatoes. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until the chicken has cooked through and the tomatoes have softened, reducing the heat as needed to keep the soup from boiling over.
Remove from the heat; stir in the fish sauce mixture, scallion and cilantro. Serve hot.
Makes 2 to 4 servings.
Adapted from Nongkran Daks, chef-owner of Thai Basil in Chantilly, Va.
Food on 01/09/2019
Print Headline: Recipe takes stress off making Tom Yum Gai