Thai soups are plentiful in their many variations and flavors. The base of this vegetarian soup recipe, known as Tom Yum, is lemongrass, galangal root, lime juice and kaffir lime leaves, plus tomato and spices. I simply used whatever veggies I had at home— bok choy, broccoli, tomato, orange and red sweet peppers, zucchini— and I just could not resist adding coconut milk. I tend to shop at Asian supermarkets as I love the selection of vegetables. Lemongrass is easily found in the Asian markets, as well as galangal root, which is a cousin to ginger, though completely inedible as far as chewing it— please don’t do it— but it perfumes this soup so beautifully (remove it from your soup bowl once served but leave in pot to simmer). When I say don’t chew galangal, I say this from experience. Before I really had much experience with eating Thai cuisine, I made such mistakes. I recall it tasted camphorous and medicinal, with a funky odor that went up into my nose. However, I promise you, the main reason that galangal root is used is because it creates a magical flavor.
I realize this is not the traditional hot and sour Tom Yum (“Tom” refers to boiling and “Yum” or “Yam” is a reference to a Thai spicy and sour salad). This is my version, a vegetarian/vegan version, and very ‘California style’ Thai, if you will. The sweet, sour, spicy and citrus notes swirl together in the pot and make it a favorite soup of mine.
The base broth for the traditional Thai Tom Yum soup is typically fish/shrimp stock, fresh lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal root, lime juice, fish sauce, and chili peppers. Then the vegetables and shrimp are added in, along with cilantro leaves to garnish.
Galangal root and lemongrass create the pungent flavor while kaffir lime leaves and freshly squeezed lime juice give citrusy sour flavor to the soup. There are many variations of this recipe as it is made differently according to the region of Thailand— my recipe is adapted from a traditional Bangkok/Central Plains version, omitting shrimp and fish sauce. Not using fish sauce in particular in this soup makes it less authentic and probably unheard of by traditional methods. But that is fine because this is a vegetarian recipe and not exacting, so I added a splash of coconut milk and ginger too. Because I am in love with turmeric’s golden orange color, I had some fresh turmeric root and grated it in with the ginger. I am a California girl that loves Thai cuisine, and considered garnishing my bowl with slivers of avocado! You won’t find avocado listed in the ingredients, but go ahead and experiment with your own soup.
I have fun experimenting with different ingredients and don’t follow many rules. In my own way around the kitchen while creating a recipe, I mingled the Tom Yum soup base with Tom Kha, a coconut milk and broth based Thai chicken soup. Tom Kha is aromatic and creamy, using the same ingredient base as Tom Yum, but for the addition of chicken and coconut milk. Rather than leaving it on a sweet and sour note with just tomato and lime juice essences, the coconut milk gives a dimension to the texture and flavor. Tofu is sometimes added in place of chicken, though I recommend adding the tofu to each individual serving instead of the entire pot, that way it doesn’t crumble into the soup. In Thai restaurants the tofu seems pan-fried before adding to the soup, making the tofu flavorful instead of bland.
Another Thai ingredient is kaffir lime leaves. These fragrant leaves are wonderful and quite like using bay leaves. If you can find these in the Asian supermarket they are in the produce section. The market I go to has the leaves prepackaged in a little cellophane-wrapped flat, and there are more kaffir lime leaves than I can use up entirely, as you only need a few per soup pot.
I think once you try this recipe, you may make it more often. Since Asian supermarkets are easily found where I live in Los Angeles, Thai groceries are at my fingertips. I’ve found many Asian vegetables at my local farmers’ market as well. If you aren’t in an area where these ingredients are as accessible, move to sunny California or Thailand, though you could adapt this using ginger, lime and veggies. Also, a great online resource for Asian vegetables is Melissa’s Produce. I am searching for a pre-made vegetarian nam prik pow paste (black chili paste) but meanwhile I’ll try my hand at making one at home without the shrimp paste that is the standard of most Thai seasoning.
Please have fun with this and enjoy making your soup! I hope it adds spice, flavor and sunshine to your palate and bowl.
Thai Tom Yum Vegetable Soup
3 cups clear vegetable broth
1 tablespoon coconut oil
3 tablespoons seasoned rice wine/mirin
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 shallots, sliced
5 kaffir lime leaves
3 thin slices fresh galangal root
2 stalks lemongrass, lower white portion, cut into 4-inch lengths, pounded and bruised
5 green Thai chili peppers, optional, to your liking in spice level
2 tomatoes, cut into small wedges
2 zucchini, quartered and cut into wedges
6 baby bok choy, whole
2 small orange sweet peppers, chopped
2 small sweet red peppers, chopped
1 cup of baby broccoli crowns
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
1 bunch fresh cilantro, leaves only
2 limes, cut into wedges
1 cup coconut milk
1/2 cup sautéed tofu (optional)
Add the garlic, shallots and tablespoon of coconut oil into the pot and sauté on medium heat for about 3-5 minutes. Splash in a dash of rice wine (or mirin) and allow it to cook off a little, about 2 minutes.
Pour in the vegetable broth, continuing to keep the heat set on medium flame. Add in the lemongrass, galangal root, chili peppers, kaffir lime leaves and heat for about 6 minutes. Add the coconut milk into the soup.
Now add the veggies in— bok choy, red and orange sweet peppers, broccoli, tomatoes, zucchini— and cook for about 10 minutes on a medium-high heat. Do not over-boil your veggies! You want everything very fresh and crisp. The bok choy and broccoli especially, otherwise it will turn color and look less appetizing, plus it gets mushy.
Using tongs, remove the galangal root, kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass and set aside. This way you do not serve it in your bowl, however, save them to add back into the pot to simmer and flavor your remaining soup.
NOTE: One trick is to place the galangal root slices, kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass inside a herb sachet. That way you can continue to season your soup without worry of eating these aromatics.
Turn off flame and serve in wide bowls, adding in fresh grated ginger (if you like) and garnish with squeezed lime juice and cilantro leaves. if you have any additions that make you happy, add them in to your serving bowl. Enjoy!