Standing at her stove, stirring a pot of aromatic tom yum gai—or Thai hot and sour chicken soup—Rawadee Yenchujit tries her best to describe what we will taste. Words, in every language, fail us.
Aroi mak! she says. Online translators all agree: very delicious.
Yenchujit does not. Sure, Thailand’s take on chicken soup is delicious. But that lacks nuance. We run a gamut of synonyms, none satisfying the Bangkok food blogger. Until she hits on it. Brain freeze!
It was, simply, the best chicken soup I’d ever eaten.
Not what I was expecting. And it isn’t literal, so don’t waste time on Google. But it’s the only term Yenchujit says captures tom yum gai’s explosive intensity. As the kitchen fills with a torrent of spicy, citrusy, savory, peppery and herbal aromas, it’s hard to argue.
Until then, my experience with tom yum gai mostly was wan gingery-citrusy flavors with hints of heat. Something different was brewing here.
Her assembly was simple, a soup that creates its own formidable broth. Though many variations include coconut milk—a staple of so much Thai cooking—Yenchujit prefers the clarity of flavor you get without it.
She began by simmering chicken in ample water. As it cooked, she layered on flavors—heaps of lemon grass, galangal (a relative of ginger), makrut lime leaves, garlic and shallots.
Then meaty mushrooms, then more layers of intensity—lime juice, fish sauce, a full ¼ cup of crushed chilies, the jam-like chili paste nam prik pao and grassy fresh parsley.
It simmered and was done. This was no basic chicken soup. When Yenchujit tasted, she shook her head in delicious disbelief. I started with a spoonful of just the broth.
A cascade of flavors compelling, overwhelming, welcoming. A wave of citrusy, savory, salty, spicy, meaty and herbal. And that was just the broth! Add the chicken and mushrooms, and it was simply tremendous.
The soup, of course, begged for rice, which sopped up all those flavors. It was, simply, the best chicken soup I’d ever eaten. Brain freeze, indeed.