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Bangkok Post : Tom yum: from spicy soup to cure-all cocktail

1307941508 35 Bangkok Post : Tom yum: from spicy soup to cure all cocktail

Jeffrey, a food writer and friend from new York, asked if I could help him invent a couple of cocktails using Thai herbs. my first thought was to emulate the concept of lao ya dong, that herb-infused home brew popular in the countryside. for as long as there have been illnesses that needed a boost of alcohol to give the body a jolt, Thai villagers have been making this powerful cure. but Jeffrey thought the herbs that I described were too alien and the alcohol too potent for Westerners.

I reminded him that drinks using vodka infused with chillies are a big deal and as much the rage as the far-out and over-the-top cocktails he was envisioning. so, I jokingly suggested making a whisky or vodka cocktail infused with the ingredients used for tom yum soup.

It seems that just about every foreigner who loves Thai food regards tom yum as one of their all-time favourites and won’t pass up a bowl of this sour-and-spicy concoction – no matter how badly it’s been made. a drink along the same lines would surely be as popular as the soup. Jeffrey thought it was a brilliant idea.

Our conversation got me thinking about tom yum; not about what it would taste like as a cocktail, but why, and how, the soup was created.

In the original recipe, the ingredients – each of which are considered by Thai folk doctors to possess properties for treating respiratory ailments, in particular – are boiled together into a medicinal brew. Those suffering from symptoms related to colds, including stuffy noses, chest congestion and hacking coughs, would swear by the curative powers of tom yum. whether by sheer coincidence, or a deliberate decision by tom yum’s creator, these ingredients are also staples found in a typical Thai kitchen.

Several years ago I visited a friend who had fallen on hard times. being a gracious host, she insisted on cooking for me and one of the dishes she wanted to make was tom yum.

Growing out of control around her home by the edge of a river were all sorts of herbs and rhizomes, their leaves looking lush and verdant. As we walked along a narrow dirt path, she paused and picked up a spade, using it to loosen the soil around the base of a tall stalk. then she pulled a large tuber from the ground. I helped her gather some mature coriander plants with their roots intact and then we plucked handfuls of fragrant kaffir-lime leaves from a tree bearing several of the large, green, crinkly-skinned fruits. When my friend used a machete to cut a few stems from a clump of lemongrass, the plant’s sharp, lemony perfume exploded into the air.

Setting a pot over a blazing charcoal brazier, she added a tad of cooking oil and quickly stirred in shells from some shrimps she’d peeled earlier plus a few dried chillies to colour and flavour the oil. in a flash, the shells crackled and the chillies blackened, sending up a plume of smoke. Several ladles of water were added and, as they came to the boil, she removed and discarded the shrimp bits and tossed in shallots, whole cloves of garlic she’d smashed with a knife blade and a handful of fresh chillies picked from the bountiful bush outside her kitchen door.

After several rinses, the muddy tuber that she’d pulled from the garden revealed its shiny, pinkish-yellow skin. She sliced the galangal – for that is what it was – crosswise into several pieces and bruised these, as well as the lengths of lemongrass, with the back of her knife before tossing them into the pot. Next, came the coriander roots and a heap of crushed kaffir-lime leaves. As the mixture boiled, the heat liberated the essential oils, filling the room with a bouquet of aromatic herbs and piquant chilies.

We sat talking as the soup simmered, turning the kitchen into a heady-scented sauna. I remember taking several deep breaths of the herbal perfume, letting the moist, warm air loosen knots of worry I’d been carrying around with me. by and by, she added some salt and fish sauce. in a couple of bowls she placed freshly chopped coriander leaves and a few squeezes of lime juice.

Then, returning to the broth, she dipped a spoon in and, seemingly satisfied with the flavour, added some fresh shrimps and straw mushrooms. When the shrimps had curled, hardened and turned pink, she ladled some soup into the bowls and gave each a quick stir. what had been a clear broth instantly turned cloudy.

The memory of that wonderful pot of tom yum goong my friend made on that hot summer day came back to me as I pondered the question of why tom yum was created. I think the inventor must have been a healer – and a cook; someone who knew how to combine culinary ingredients and healing remedies. perhaps someone in the family had a bad cold and had lost their appetite, or was depressed, and was the type that detested the bitter medicinal brew usually prescribed by Thai folk doctors. Instead, a pot of delicious medicine was created, not only to stimulate the sick person’s appetite, but also to cure the cold or raise low spirits at the same time.

Come to think of it, the challenge posed by my friend Jeffrey – to create a cocktail with tom yum seasoning – is a superb idea. following the method used to make lao ya dong, one could infuse a strong spirit such as vodka or our very own Mekong whiskey with herbs and let the mixture percolate for at least six weeks.

Imagine a jigger of this brew as a home cure-all with garlic, known to strengthen the immune system, repairing the damage done by colds. then there are the shallots, which loosens congestion in the chest, and coriander root which eases fever with its antibiotic properties. Galangal will warm the chest while the kaffir lime leaves will make it easier to take deeper breaths. Chillies will keep the circulatory system running smoothly, not to mention the fact that they boost the appetite and trigger endorphins in the brain which banish the blues. the alcohol? Well, according to the folk doctors, it kills poison; or, in other words, it disinfects against germs. it also induces a relaxed and drowsy state of calm.

For those of us who don’t drink alcohol, the brew could be used like a massage oil; rubbed onto the chest, back of the neck and temples to relieve colds and fevers. and it really works. I speak from experience. When I was very young and confined to bed with a bad case of influenza, my mother rubbed Chinese wine all over me before wrapping me up in a thick blanket to break the fever. it worked! truly!

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