One of the most recognizable and noted dishes in Thai cuisine is Tom Yam -- a hot and sour soup most often prepared with shrimp (Tom Yam Koong), with other popular variations including mushrooms (Tom Yam Het). The red-tinted broth represents a perfect example of the art of Thai cuisine, where the sensations of spicy, sour, sweet, and salty are delicately balanced.
To achieve the symphony of flavours in Tom yam, a handful of spices and herbs are used; while not meant to be consumed, they give the broth that distinctive 'tom yam' taste. A typical recipe includes the following: lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, coriander roots, shallots, tomato, mushrooms, thai chilies, roasted chili paste, lime juice, coconut milk, fish sauce, coriander, shrimp or chicken.
Let's take a closer look at what exactly are the main ingredients left in the bowl after every drop of soup has been slurped — their health benefits, as well as the invisible heroes that give the soup its powerful punch.
One of the more prevalent herbs used in Thai cuisine is the lemongrass. The hard white stalks are used in the making of Tom Yam soup, usually smashed or cut into thick slices to release the subtle citrus aroma. In addition to its light aroma, the plant contain substances thought to relieve pain as well as having antioxidant properties. The plant's relaxing properties have also seen it a popular ingredient in spa and aromatherapy products.
Commonly mis-identified as ginger in Tom Yam soup due to the similar look and texture, galangal is usually sliced into thin pieces and added to the soup for a peppery-and-gingery dash of aroma and flavouring. The rhizome tuber is known for its anti-inflammatory health benefits, as well as its capabilities in calming the stomach and improving overall blood circulation in the body.
Kaffir lime leaves
The only leaves in a Tom Yam soup are Kaffir Lime, with usually just two or three whole leaves boiled with the broth. The leaves give off a strong citrus flavour, its lime aroma giving a fresh effect to the soup. The oils in the leaves are also known for their therapeutic benefits, ranging from aiding in digestion to cleansing the blood and anti-bacterial properties. Rubbing the leaves on gums are also believed to help with maintaining healthy gum and teeth.
Roasted chilli paste
Roasted chilli paste, also known chilli paste in oil or even roasted chilli jam (albeit a savoury jam). The seeds and pulp of chilli are mashed with garlic, shallots, dried shrimp, palm sugar, fish sauce, and tamarind paste, resulting in the mighty paste packing in all the flavours associated with Thai cuisine -- sweet, salty, spicy, and sour. Despite its name of "chilli paste", the condiment is not overwhelmingly spicy. The paste is widely used in Thai cuisine, lurking in the background of a wide range of dishes ranging from stir fry and soup or simply spread on toast like jam. The health benefits of the main ingredients of chilli are well documented, and includes its high vitamin C and antioxidant content, lowering blood sugar, boosting circulation, fat burning, relief of pain and inflammation.
Perhaps more omnipresent than even the ubiquitous roasted chilli paste is fish sauce, a condiment found on every single food stall in Thailand. The pungent smell of the fermented fish brine is divisive, but near impossible to escape from in Thai cuisine. The sauce is the de facto replacement of salt in all aspects of Thai cuisine, and usually added in non-copious amounts, making it almost non-identifiable in dishes such as Tom Yam. Fish sauce contains high levels of protein and minerals, but with its high salt content, is not recommended to consume in large dosages.