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So Much More Than Soup 

Why Bangkok Thai’s Tom Yum continues to baffle me

click to enlarge YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak

The first time I ate this dish I was delighted. The last time I ate this dish I was furious. Here’s why.

My initiation to Tom Yum soup was on a whim to order something besides curry at Bangkok Thai’s South Hill location and also because I was freezing cold. I ordered it with shrimp and opted for three stars — the introductory level for melt-your-face-off, show-the-whites-of-your-eyes spices. It was described as “hot and sour soup” on the menu, which I now know is a gargantuan undersell and probably an Americanized way of telling people that it’s not scary.

Presentation-wise, they hooked me at the bowl. It looked like the bottom half of a silver hookah or something Pottery Barn would have in its “Throw an Exotic Block Party” collection. Fresh vegetables (mushrooms being the most buoyant), cilantro and spicy oil droplets floated atop a light, flavorful broth and the steam smelled like what you’d imagine an outdoor Thai marketplace would smell like in a tourism commercial. Diners at other tables looked up from their painfully regular plates to stare at, and speculate over, what was placed in front of me.

I enthusiastically put a heap of rice in my side bowl and topped it with a few generous helpings of soup. Heaven ensued, as did a fiery facial sweat. It was sweet, spicy, smoky, tangy, zesty and all the other hollow adjectives that don’t really convey how delicious something is when all you can say is, “holy shit.” This is a dish accustomed to first bite expletives. I knew I had to eat this frequently. I had to learn how to make it, especially for the upcoming potluck I’d RSVP’d to.

My Internet browser soon told me that the basic ingredients of a traditional Tom Yum soup are stock, lemon grass, mushrooms, tomatoes, green onion, chili paste, cilantro, galangal (a root in the ginger family), kaffir lime leaves, lime juice, fish sauce and sweet basil or cilantro along with whatever meat you choose. It’s a very popular dish in Thailand and Laos, so there are myriad recipes, articles and videos available on the subject. It sounded simple enough. I went shopping at Best Asian Market on Sprague and hunkered down in my kitchen.

The product of my efforts tasted like watered down chili oil mixed with a bad margarita. I remembered the flavors of my first bowl being so intense and concentrated and lovely. I started over, this time bruising the lemongrass reeds with extra force, just to end up with an even larger bowl of Failure, Part Deux. This was not the kind of entry that could hold up in the home cooking pissing contests that we call “potlucks.” The Tom Yum I remembered would gold medal me in every dining room up and down the South Hill. I’d finally have something over those smug prosciutto-loving participants who put a fig on everything. Nope, I had to fold. And I still can’t get it right.

I’ve returned several times to Bangkok Thai, each time serving as further proof that it is the only place that has any business cooking one of my favorite meals. They are understandably guarded when it comes to revealing how to concoct such a wonder. When I sat down with a steaming bowl of it across from the young head cook, Prayut Chindapradist, he did more smiling than he did talking. He mentioned the galangal, the lemongrass and the lime leaves, but the twinkle in his eye and grin on his face made it abundantly clear that I’d never know the secret behind Bangkok Thai’s Tom Yum.

This makes me furious. 

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