I would have named this recipe tom yum soup, since the popular Thai dish is certainly its inspiration. But it’s missing a few crucial — and difficult to find — ingredients, and prepared rather on the fly instead of slow-simmered. It wouldn’t seem quite right to purists of Thai cuisine. It is, however, absolutely right to those looking to quench their appetite for something a little exotic, restorative and refreshing, and you don’t have much time.
Call it what you will — and call me what you will, as the ambassador of half-assed — but this is still really, really good. And in more ways than might meet the eye. The snowy, murky, misty weather of the last few weeks have really gotten under my skin in a bad way — a constant lingering cold, a cloying clamminess. So soup’s been on the menu at home more often than solid food, it seems.
That, and herbal tea. But this soup is actually not too different from that; it’s an infusion of lemongrass, ginger and chilies, with chicken stock and a splatter of fish sauce as a base. When the waft hits your nose, it refreshes and tickles the senses in the way a good citrus zinger might do.
Inspired to try out more soups, of all different cuisines, I started out with a basic understanding of Thai lemongrass soup and tweaked it to fit my tastes that day. That included leaving out shrimp, chicken or other pieces of meat floating around in it and adding the more benign silken tofu. It incorporated fresh, salad-like garnishes of raw carrot zipped through a vegetable peeler and fresh scallions. Sliced shiitake mushrooms instead of straw mushrooms, since I had some on hand. It did not include hunting down kaffir lime leaves, but did a good squeeze of fresh lime juice to finish.
All told, the combination of the herbal, spicy ingredients (lemongrass, chilies and ginger) and the sour citrus was a potent combination. It goes down so clean, I never felt guilty about refilling my bowl with thirds and fourths of tasty broth. I think my immune system has responded positively, too. So even though the resulting recipe below isn’t quite as complex as a proper tom yum soup, the juxtaposition of flavors is still pretty fresh. And achievable, even when shopping for all of your ingredients at a conventional grocery store instead of a Thai market.
Hot-Sour Lemongrass Soup with Mushrooms & Tofu
(makes about 4 servings)
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1-inch piece of ginger, cut to thick strips
about 3 tablespoons lemongrass (can be found in jars at most groceries, or fresh or frozen at Thai or Asian markets)
about 3 fresh Thai chilies (or to taste), stemmed and seeded
1 tablespoon Thai fish sauce
1/2 block firm silken tofu, cut to about 1″ pieces
handful fresh shiitake mushrooms, sliced (or substitute with straw mushrooms, button mushrooms, or any type of mushrooms you prefer)
1 carrot, peeled
juice of 1 lime
1-2 scallions, sliced (optional)
about 1/4 cup bamboo shoots (optional, from a can and rinsed well)
1/2 bunch fresh cilantro (optional)
Combine the ginger, lemongrass and chilies in a medium-sized pot. Add all the stock and fish sauce and bring just to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cover for 20 minutes to infuse. Strain all solid ingredients from stock.
Bring to a slight boil, uncovered, and add the mushrooms, tofu and bamboo shoots. Let cook another 10-15 minutes. Meanwhile, peel the carrot into thin ribbons with a peeler (rotating the carrot as you peel, holding the thickest end). Set aside for garnish.
Add the lime juice and taste for seasoning. Serve in individual bowls with a shower of carrots, optional scallions and cilantro as garnish.
(for 4 servings)
4 cups chicken stock (homemade): $2.50
1-inch piece ginger: $0.20
3 tablespoons lemongrass (preserved in a jar): $0.75
3 Thai chilies: $1.00
1 tablespoon fish sauce: $0.25
1/2 block tofu: $1.50
about 8 shiitake mushrooms: $2.00
1 carrot: $0.35
1 lime: $0.30
2 scallions: $0.50
Two brownie points: Another soup, another very low brownie point rating. I think we’re onto something here. This soup’s broth is so clear and light there’s no added oils except whatever may have been in your chicken stock. It’s fragrant, but also filled with Vitamin C (from the lime), circulation-boosting ginger, and warming, spicy essence from the chilies. Some good tofu will add a little protein and fiber, and the fresh carrots finish it off with Vitamin A and more C. A health tonic? I wouldn’t go that far, especially since that seems to connotate something that doesn’t taste nearly as good.
Four maple leaves: It’s not easy being green in the middle of winter. Many of the ingredients found here were preserved — frozen stock, canned bamboo shoots and jarred lemongrass. The ones that aren’t weren’t necessarily grown locally either — limes, tofu, scallions, and carrot. Although the shiitake mushrooms were sourced at the Greenmarket, as these and many other varieties are available year-round. However, it is a vegetable-heavy dish and these ingredients in themselves have a smaller carbon footprint than most types of meat.