Eric Akis: Thai-style soup helps beat the winter chills

When the word “yum” is used in a soup’s name one might expect it to be pleasing and tasty. And tom yum soup is, but in this case, the word yum has a different meaning.

Before I tell you what it is, let me first tell you what “tom” means as it shares the stage in describing how the soup is made. According to several sources, tom — pronounced “dtome” — is the Thai word for boil.

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Yum, also spelled yam, is a Thai term for spicy salad. It describes a mixing of ingredients with the end goal of creating a dish with a nice balance of sour and spicy flavours, often with sweet and salty accents.

So, to make tom yum soup, ingredients that will infuse the highly aromatic liquid base for the soup with those flavours are brought to a boil. In Thailand, they can include such things as lemon grass, hot chilies, palm sugar, galangal, citrus juice, tamarind paste and kaffir lime leaves.

The most popular version of the soup is tom yum goong, also called tom yum kung. Goong and kung are Thai words for prawns and shrimp, which are added to the soup. Chicken and other meats, such as pork, are added to some versions of the soup.

I have also seen tom yum soups that, instead of prawns or meat, feature vegetables and tofu — as my recipe does today.

I decided to call it tom yum-style soup because although dynamically flavoured, I opted to make the base for the soup with ingredients that readers would find at most Vancouver Island supermarkets, such as brown sugar, fresh ginger and limes, rather than harder to find palm sugar, galangal and kaffir lime leaves.

But I did give the option to use those items, if desired. And, I should note, that the Thai curry paste I used in the recipe does contain modest amounts of galangal and kaffir lime leaves.

My soup is a filling main course that’s ladled into bowls with cooked jasmine rice. It will make a comforting, palate-awakening meal to enjoy on a cool January night.

Tom Yum-style Soup with Vegetables and Tofu

This hearty, flavourful, main-course version of tom yum soup, served over rice, is stocked with a mix of vegetables, mushrooms and a generous amount of tofu.

Preparation time: 40 minutes

Cooking time: About 20 minutes

Makes: Four servings

For the soup base

3 3/4 cups vegetable broth (see Note 1)

1 (400 mL) can coconut milk

1 stalk lemongrass, bottom half only, halved lengthwise and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (see Note 2)

10 thin slices fresh ginger

2 large garlic cloves, chopped

1 tsp finely grated lime zest

2 Tbsp lime juice, or to taste

1 to 2 tsp red Thai curry paste (see Note 3)

2 Tbsp soy sauce

1 Tbsp brown sugar

Place all ingredients in a pot. Set over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce to low heat until mixture barely simmers. Simmer for five minutes. Now set a fine strainer over a second pot and strain the mixture through it. Set this base for the soup aside, until needed.

For the soup

1 Tbsp vegetable oil

1 large shallot, halved and thinly sliced

1 small green bell pepper, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1 small red bell pepper, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1 medium carrot, halved lengthwise, and then thinly sliced widthwise on the bias

6 cherry tomatoes, quartered

10 fresh shitake mushrooms, tough stems removed, caps thinly sliced

1 (454 gram) tub medium-firm tofu, drained well and cut into 1/2-inch cubes

2 green onions, thinly sliced

1/3 cup coarsely chopped cilantro or Thai basil, or to taste

3 cups cooked jasmine rice (see Note 4)

1 lime, cut into small wedges (optional)

Heat oil in a medium to large pot set over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add the shallots, bell peppers and carrot and cook and stir two to three minutes.

Pour the soup base into the pot. Add the tomatoes and mushrooms and bring soup to a gentle simmer, lowering the heat as needed to maintain that simmer. Simmer soup five minutes, now swirl in the tofu, green onions and cilantro and heat them through two minutes.

To serve, set 3/4 cup of cooked jasmine rice into each large serving bowl. Ladle the soup into the bowls and enjoy. If desired, for added tanginess, serve the soup with lime wedges for squeezing juice into it.

Note 1: If using store-bought, one (900 mL) container of vegetable broth will yield the 3 3/4 cups needed here. I use Campbell’s brand when testing the recipe.

Note 2: Lemon grass is sold in the produce section of most supermarkets. Remove any loose leaves and trim the bottom of the lemon grass before smashing and cutting it.

Note 3: I used Thai Kitchen brand red Thai curry paste, which is sold at most supermarkets. Fish sauce is not listed as one of its ingredients.

Note 4: One cup of raw jasmine rice, when cooked, should yield the three cups of cooked rice needed here (see Eric’s options).

Eric’s options: If desired, the ginger in the recipe could be replaced with an equally amount of sliced galangal, the lime zest with four kaffir lime leaves and the brown sugar with an equal amount of palm sugar. You can find those ingredients at some supermarkets and Asian food stores, such as those in Victoria’s Chinatown. White or brown long-grain rice could also be used in this recipe, but it won’t be quite as aromatic and flavourful as jasmine rice.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Times Colonist Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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