Delightful flavouring and fresh ingredients make Thai soups irresistible palate-pleasers, says Rahul Verma
Gaeng Jued Kai
When I am not cooking or eating, I often find myself reading about food with my nose stuck in a cookery book. Just the other day, I was going through one of my well-thumbed books — Madhur Jaffrey's A Taste of the Far East — when I was struck by the various kinds of Thai soups that figured in it. Thai soups, I must say, are in a class of their own. And while I no doubt appreciate that when I am having some, it's when I read about it that I am especially wowed by the wonderful flavours that go into it.And that's why, a few days later when I was conversing with Saurav Banerjee, the executive chef at The Oberoi Grand, that the topic of Thai soups came up. He agrees that Thai soups are distinctly flavourful — and just right for the weather. It's not surprising that chef Klae Somsuay has been warming the chilled bones of the people of Calcutta with an array of soups at Baan Thai, the regional restaurant at the Grand.
Thai soups are special because of the delightful flavouring agents that go into them. No soup, really, is complete without its share of galangal, lemon grass and kaffir lime. The tom yum koong, for instance, is a delicious prawn soup flavoured with all three ingredients. And the tom som pla — cooked with fish — can't do without these flavours either (see recipe). "This is a very tasty as well as a hearty soup and a must have to drive away the chill of the winter," says chef Saurav.
Galangal — known as kha in Thailand — is a ginger-like rhizome with a peculiar taste of its own. Chef Saurav describes it as slightly lemony and somewhat gingery. Kaffir limes again have a distinct flavour — which the chef likens to Bengal's Gondhoraj lebu. "It's a bit like that, but different at the same time. The leaves add a hint of lemon to the soup — without the tartness," he says. Writer Jaffrey suggests that when you are using kaffir leaves, tear a leaf into half, and then discard the central stem.
Tom yum koong
Coriander roots and leaves also flavour Thai soups. The gaeng jued kai, for instance, is a chicken dumpling soup that gets its aroma from coriander leaves, which, of course, grow abundantly in India.
Of course, these days even ingredients such as galangal and kaffir lime are readily available in India. Some of my friends grow lemon grass at home, which is also available in select markets. Lemon grass, or takrai, as it is known in Thailand, has a sweetly subtle flavour. Usually the bottom half of the grass is used in cooking food. Some people cut the grass but it tastes better when just crushed and bruised. "Galangal and lemon grass together give you a balanced flavour," stresses chef Saurav.
These are the flavours that add to the taste of tom kha phak — a vegetable Thai soup. For this, all that you have to do is boil vegetable stock and coconut milk along with lemon grass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, onion and chillies. Bring it to a boil and add mushroom, runner beans, broccoli and baby corn. Season, and finish with lemon juice. Simple — yet so good.
I think it's this simplicity really that gives such strength to Thai cuisine, which restaurateur Anjan Chatterjee describes as one of the classic cuisines of the world. Chatterjee, who runs the Oh! Calcutta, Mainland China and other chains in the country, says that a Thai soup rests on the quality of the stock.
"And while most soups are flavoured with galangal, kaffir limes and lemon grass, it's the freshness of an ingredient that adds to the taste," says Chatterjee, who is about to introduce a Southeast Asian menu at Mainland China.
Thai soups, clearly, rule. And that's because they're so easy to cook — and so good to eat!
Tom Som Pla (serves 2)
- 3 cups fish stock l2 tbs diced bekti fish l2 sprigs Thai coriander roots
- 1 tbs tamarind juice or lemon juice l1 tbs fish sauce l1 tsp sugar
- 5g lemon grass l5g galangal l2g kaffir lime leaves l½ tsp shrimp paste
- 2g ginger l2 cloves garlic l5g onion l2g black peppercorn
Wash the diced fish and set aside. In a pestle and mortar, pound together shrimp paste, onion, garlic, coriander roots and peppercorn into a coarse paste. In a sauce pan, add the stock, lemon grass, galangal and kaffir lime. Mix in the paste and bring the soup base to a boil. When boiling, add the fish pieces, cook until just done. Season the soup with fish sauce, sugar and tamarind pulp juice or lemon juice. It should taste sweet and sour and a bit salty. To finish the soup, add ginger juliennes.