Whenever I make one of my Mama’s recipes, I have to remind myself that cooking takes practice and things don’t often go as smoothly as they look on TV (How does Jacque Pepin make things look so easy?). And when I call her to ask why I carefully followed the recipe and the dish doesn’t taste like it’s supposed to, she’ll always reiterate to me how many of her recipes aren’t concrete — you have to be flexible and keep sampling the dish as you make it to achieve the perfect flavor. Is the broth lacking some zing? Add more chilies or some Sriracha. Whoa, is it way too salty? Time to mix in some water.
Cooking also involves a lot of trial and error — so practice is key and it’s OK if recipes don’t turn out flawlessly the first time you make them. My Mama says she ruined dishes for years and years before she mastered them. I tend to forget these things and become easily discouraged. Luckily, Gavin (super-supportive husband) never complains when we’re suddenly eating at 8:30pm because I forgot to prep any ingredients or had to ring my Ma for emergency advice.
Though cooking mishaps are common in our household, I am stoked to report I successfully made one of her dishes last weekend. Tom yum kung, a sweet-and-sour shrimp soup, is one of my favorite Thai soups — and the clear version has a refreshing taste (check out the recipe for the creamy version here). Since cooking seafood, particularly shellfish, has always been a challenge for me, I was intimated by the recipe at first. But my Mama shared her method to making juicy, non-rubbery shrimp: marinating them in egg whites, corn starch and water.
I made a special trip to H Mart, the Korean market by my house, to pick up some fresh shrimp, galangal (a citrusy ginger-like root) and lemongrass. I purchased shrimp with their heads intact since boiling the heads with the shells adds flavor to the broth. I know that might sound intense to some — but I promise the flavorful broth is worth the sacrifice of ripping their heads off and seeing those beady eyes stare back at you in a rolling boil. Plus, you can wear gloves if the ripping the heads off the shrimp scares you, which is 100 percent valid, but Gavin admits it was entertaining to watch me do it. You can also buy dried galangal, which my Mama recommends since the fresh root is a bit difficult to slice and the dried version is just as flavorful.
I altered my Mama’s recipe to serve two; she originally had 1 pound of shrimp in the recipe, but Gavin and I didn’t need that much! I also opted to buy some good-looking fresh Korean mushrooms I found, but any type of shroom will work. Using chicken broth will result in a richer, saltier soup so you might have to omit the salt at the end or add some water, depending on your preference. I didn’t need to add any salt or mix in any water — I was delighted that it tasted just like my Ma’s.
The soup is delicious served with a side of rice. Give her recipe a try; it’s perfect for a rainy or overcast day (though Thais will happily eat it in any weather).
Tom Yum Kung Soup (Shrimp Tom Yum Soup)
1/2 lb. raw shell-on jumbo shrimp (with heads intact or without)
1 egg white
1 tbsp. water
1 tbsp. corn starch
4 cups chicken stock or water
4 stalks of lemongrass, cut into 2-inch sections and crushed or bruised
8 Kaffir lime leaves
2 slices of galangal or 4 slices of fresh galangal
4 fresh Thai chilies, sliced in half
4 whole cilantro stems
1 tbsp. sugar
3 tbsp. Thai fish sauce
4 tbsp. fresh lime juice
8-oz. can of straw mushrooms, drained, or 8 oz. of any fresh mushrooms of your choice
1 tbsp. cilantro leaves
Salt and pepper, to taste
Peel and devein the shrimp; set the shells (and heads, if you went for the head-on variety) aside. Whisk together the egg whites, water and corn starch; mix in the shrimp and let them rest for about 20 minutes.
Rinse the shells and put them in a large pot with the chicken stock or water. Bring them to a boil and add the lemongrass, Kaffir lime leaves, galangal, Thai chilies and whole cilantro stems. Simmer gently for about 15 minutes until the stock smells very fragrant.
Drain the stock, then bring it back to a boil over medium-high heat in the same pot. Add the sugar, Thai fish sauce, fresh lime juice and mushrooms. Wait about five minutes, then drop in the shrimp. Let them boil until they turn light pink — less than one minute. Be careful not to overcook them or they’ll become elastic-y (like “rubber bands,” as my Mama would say).
When you add the shrimp coated in egg-white mixture to the boiling broth, you may see some tiny egg fragments in the soup. They are tasteless but if they bother you, re-strain the soup the second time and add the shrimp back in. Remove the soup from the heat and taste; add salt and pepper (or any other ingredients, like more lime) to suit your preferences.
This recipe serves two.
- If you’re buying fresh lemongrass, be sure to slice the stalks with a sharp knife. They’re tough! I usually slice off the rough bottom and top of the stalks and use the center.
- Like ginger, galangal can also be tough to peel and slice — be careful and don’t touch your eyes or face while you’re handling it (it burns, as I sadly learned from experience).
- Thai chilies are typically sold at the Asian Market in medium-size bags, so you’ll have plenty leftover. I wash, destem and freeze them in an airtight container for later use; they maintain their heat and are easy to defrost.