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December 2, 2004

Recipe: Tom Yam Gai Soup

Gosh, I certainly get many emails asking for a Tom Yam soup recipe. Why, I wonder. Could it be because of my tireless advocacy of it as a cure for everything short of a heart attack? Heck, it's certainly strong enough to scare the living daylights out of any viruses. What micro-organism could resist such a relentless assault from the hot n' sour combination of chillies and lime juice with a background of lemongrass and lime leaves?

The funny thing is that though I've tasted Tom Yam soup at many places, I don't think I've had two identical versions of it. Every chef seems to have his or her own balance of flavours that works best, just as I do. It's amusing (and sometimes very annoying) when a customer walks into my restaurant and then argues that my Tom Yam is not "authentic", just because it tastes different from the one bowl of soup he had on a two-day trip to Bangkok. That, however, is not as annoying as someone asking for a "very mild" version of it, even though my menu clearly describes it as "fiery" and even pleads with people not to ask for it "mild". 

So, ladies and gentlemen, this is my recipe for Tom Yam soup. Try making it, especially if you've got a cold and your nose is red and runny, or if you've got a sore throat that needs to be cured. 

Here's what the soup looks like:

Tom Yam soup

And here's the really long-winded recipe, complete with copious chef's notes.

Makes 2-3 bowls of soup 

Preparation time: 15-20 minutes


Good quality Chinese chicken stock - 2 cups (500 ml) (not the crap you get from stock cubes)

Fresh or frozen lemongrass (dried lemongrass sucks) - 1 fat stalk (or 2 thin ones)

Galangal - 1 tablespoon (fresh is preferable, dried will do in a pinch - soak dried in warm water prior to use)

Kaffir Lime Leaves - 2-3 (cut into slivers

(If you don't have any of the above, Amazon ships a package of all the fresh ingredients you need for the soup.)

Nam Prik Pao (Thai roasted chilli paste) - 1-2 tsp (depends on how hot your brand of paste is)

Thai bird's eye chillies (or Serrano chillies) - 4-5 (big slices so you can avoid them easily)

Fish sauce - 2 tbsp

Lime juice - 1 medium lime

Onion - 1/4 of a medium onion (sliced)

Sugar - 1/2 tsp

Coriander (cilantro for you Americans) leaves - 4 tbsp

Boneless chicken breast - 50 gm (chopped)

Straw mushrooms (or regular button mushrooms) - 4 (sliced)

Spring/Green onions - 3 tbsp (sliced thin)


For the lemongrass, use only the bottom white part (about 6 inches) and discard the woody grass part of it. With the flat side of a cleaver or a heavy object, pound and bruise the lemongrass so it releases the flavour. Cut into 2 inch segments.

Put lemongrass, galangal, fish sauce and stock into a pot and bring to a simmer. Cover and simmer for another 15 minutes.

Uncover the pot and add the Kaffir lime leaves, chilies, onion, sugar and chicken pieces.

Simmer for 2-3 minutes, then add Nam Prik Pao and mushrooms. Simmer for yet another 2 minutes. Now add the spring onions and let it simmer for 30 seconds.

Turn off the heat, add lime juice and garnish with coriander leaves. Test for saltiness and sourness. If required, adjust with more fish sauce (salt) and lemon juice (sour).

This makes a medium-hot bowl. Some prefer to have it spicier. Find your own comfort level. Remove the lemongrass and galangal before serving if you like. They're not particularly edible. Good for colds, good for a whole lotta things. Your grandma's chicken soup can't hold a candle up to this one. :)


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1) To turn this into Tom Yam Goong (Prawns), use prawns instead of chicken but add it only in the final 1 minute of cooking. Prawns cook very fast and will continue to cook in the warm stock. Overcooking them will turn them tough and leathery. Instead of chicken stock, use water and add some prawn shells with the lemongrass. This will give you prawn stock. Remove shells (duh!) before adding other ingredients. Frozen prawns (nude) suck. Don't use them.

2) Good chicken stock is very simple to make. Take 1 kg chicken wings, throw in a couple of drumsticks for meat, put it in a tall stock pot, cover with 2 litres cold water, and bring to a simmer. When the scum rises to the top, skim to another bowl with a shallow spoon. This should take 10-20 minutes. When the stock is clear, toss in 4 spring onions (scallions; use only the white part), 5-6 slices ginger, and a teaspoon of black peppercorns. Let this simmer for 2-3 hours (it should only bubble). Two rules for good stock: a) do not stir and b) do not boil (or it will become cloudy instead of clear.)

After the stock has finished simmering, let it stand for 20 minutes and then using a fine mesh sieve, strain it into another bowl. Using a muslin cloth would be a good idea. Your stock is ready. If you leave it in the fridge, the fat will solidify on the top. Just remove this fat and you have de-fatted, unsalted stock ready for use. You can even reduce the liquid and make stock cubes in the freezer.

3) Galangal has no real substitute. Ginger is the closest but it does a poor job.

4)  Kaffir Lime leaves have a unique flavour. Lime zest is the closest thing (use 1-2 tsp) but not quite as good. Dried lime leaves lose flavour and you need to use more.

5) Nam Prik Pao can be made at home but I'm too lazy to tell you how. A regular pure chilli paste mixed with some sugar may be substituted with just about adequate results. Or you can just add more fresh chillies to the soup. If you don't use Nam Prik Pao, your soup will not have a fiery red colour.

6) The strength of lemongrass and lime juice may vary in your part of the world, so use your nose and your tongue to judge proper quantities. When in doubt, use more lemongrass but less lime juice. Then adjust gradually. :)

In temperate climates, you may not get limes. If so, use lemon juice instead, and use more of it than prescribed here.

7) If you live in USA, get Galangal, fresh Kaffir Lime leaves, and Nam Prik Pao (it tastes wonderful with other things too) from

Wow, who knew a soup recipe could be this long, eh?