This tangy, spicy Thai soup recipe will slash your takeout expenses

  • Spicy Lemon Grass Soup (Tom Yum Gai).

    Spicy Lemon Grass Soup (Tom Yum Gai). Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post

By Becky Krystal
The Washington Post
Posted12/25/2018 6:00 AM

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, Virginia, 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!

Daks loves the interplay between sweet, sour and spicy flavors in tom yum gai, which she says in Thailand is often eaten along with several other dishes rather than separately as a first course. Still, you should feel free to serve it as an appetizer for a small group or as a main course for two.

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.

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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.

You can also switch up the protein. Instead of chicken (freeze it for 15 minutes first to make it easier to slice thin), Daks says you can use shrimp, calamari, mussels or other mixed seafood. For a vegetarian version, go with tofu. Daks prefers a medium firmness and recommends pressing out the water, then dicing and blanching the tofu before adding it to the soup. It's a few extra steps, but that way you avoid diluting the broth and ending up with disintegrating tofu. As far as that broth goes, we thought it was plenty flavorful with water, which let the herbs really sing. Use chicken broth if you prefer.

To make an even more filling meal, Daks suggests serving tom yum gai with rice or rice noodles that can be added at the table. If you're anything like me, though, you'll eat so much soup in one sitting that you won't need, or want, anything else.

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.

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