Learning How to Cook Again – Homemade Tom Yum Gai

One of my favorite things to do at home in the US is cook.  Although I definitely am more of a baker, I cook all day every day, and would rather make something myself than go out to eat any day of the week.  One of the hardest things about being in Thailand is not having my traditional American oven and stove with me.  Thai people in general eat out more than they cook at home(I mean it’s SO cheap why not), so even Thai apartments don’t typically come with a kitchen.

I really have no right to complain – I’m lucky that my little apartment came with a hot plate, rice cooker, and other utensils; much more than teachers I know at other schools were given.  My coordinator/landlord P’nga also put a little Thai oven out on our porch for us.  Apparently it’s a good one too, as it’s the same one as the best Som Tam(spicy papaya salad) lady in town uses.  However, seeing as these are all very foreign appliances(literally and figuratively), and familiar Western ingredients for the most part aren’t available  unless I haul it all the way to Suphan Buri city or Bangkok, it’s taken some time to warm up to cooking again.



My little “kitchen.”

However, recently my roommates and I have started cooking together more.  This has helped a bit in inspiring me to cook more than just a boring mix of whatever sautéed vegetables I can find at the market.

The fact that only certain ingredients are available is both a blessing and a curse.  Yes, it sucks that I’ve been itching to do some Fall baking and have to wait until I travel this weekend to find cinnamon, but on the plus side I know everything I’m cooking is in season.  Farm-to-table is super trendy in the US, and everything I get in little Dan Chan comes from farms within a 10 kilometer radius.

I can see the fishing shacks where my fish are caught when I go run at Krasiao Dam, and you literally cannot buy vegetables that are out of season because they are not available.  I watch the woman at the market kill my fish before she cuts it up and gives it to me, and I buy a lot of my vegetables from the people who pulled them from the earth themselves.  At school when I order Khao Men Gai(chicken with rice) I watch a man cut up my chicken in the back of the Khao Men Gai stall.  Takeaway – while eating out every night is cheap and delicious, cooking in Thailand is also super cheap and insanely fresh.


A stall worker grabbing my red snapper before cutting it up for us, and the woman on the right cutting up my red snapper for me to take home.


I decided to make Tom Yum after P’nga showed Callie and Nicole(my roommates) how to make it one weekend, sadly when I was gone traveling.  They gave me the recipe and showed me all the correct ingredients to use at the market.

Tom Yum is an extremely popular Thai soup that you can order at any Thai restaurant in Thailand, and even Thai restaurants in the US.  It’s a hot & sour & spicy soup filled with vegetables and your choice of whatever protein you want.  It sometimes comes with coconut milk in it, although I prefer it without as coconut milk is super sugary and fatty, plus P’nga told us that real Tom Yum comes without coconut milk anyways.  There are many types of Tom Yum:

Tom Yum Kung(most popular) – Tom Yum with seafood

Tom Yum Pla – Tom Yum with fish

Tom Yum Gai – Tom Yum with chicken

Like many Thai dishes, at a restaurant that serves Tom Yum you can usually order any of the above.  This time I opted for Tom Yum Gai, as I wanted to make sure that I could actually make the soup before I ruined precious seafood.

The ingredients – Tom Yum has a water base, although you can also use chicken broth, with a little bit of oyster and fish sauce mixed in.  It gets all of its flavor from the mix of galangal root(“ka” in Thai, a white root from the same family as ginger), kaffeir lime leaves, and lemongrass.  Coveniently, you can find all of these bundled together nicely, specifically for Tom Yum, at the open market in town.  The vendors are also very helpful, even though they don’t speak English I have simply asked “Tom Yum?” and pointed to something and they’ve handed me the correct ingredients.  Tom Yum also has spicy Thai chilis in it, lime juice, and in my case chicken.


The bundle of all the necessary herbs.

The CHICKEN – this was the first time I actually bought chicken that wasn’t already cooked in Dan Chang.  With a tip from Callie(my roommate), I went to the market and found a woman selling different parts of chicken already cut up.  She had this HUGE beautiful pile of chicken breasts, so I simply pointed to one that she weighed and bagged up for me.  I don’t know the actual weight, but it was a HUGE freaking chicken breast the probably was about 3 servings worth and it only cost 27 baht, less than a dollar.  It was also super fresh; I saw her cutting up chickens as I approached the stall.  And it had AMAZING chicken flavor, I’m definitely going back again.


So here’s the recipe:

Tom Yum Gai

4 cups of water

10 Kaffeir lime leaves

3 stalks of lemongrass, chopped up

6 limes cut in half(the ones I used were tiny, so probably more like 3)

5 small-medium tomatoes, chopped up

1 galangal root, chopped up

A handful of fresh Thai chili peppers(I like spice, so less if you don’t)

Chopped mushrooms, as much as you’d like

Chopped onion, as much as you’d like

1.5 Tablespoons of oyster sauce(or to taste)

3 Tablespoons of fish sauce(or to taste)

A dash of sugar


Fish sauce fish sauce oyster sauce.  I used the fish sauce in the middle, that’s the one that P’nga uses.

I used a hot plate so here’s my hot plate version – throw the water in your hot plate and turn it on high.  If you have a mortar and pestle, grind up the chilis along with the lemongrass, and kaffeir lime leaves beforehand.  Thai cooking relies on the precision of a lot of different flavors, and they use a mortar and pestle with a lot of their dishes to bring the flavors out of things, for example with Som Tam(spicy papaya salad).  Add the galangal root, lemongrass, basil, kaffeir lime leaves, tomatoes, chopped up chilis, oyster sauce, and fish sauce.  Bring to a boil, toss in the sugar, then let it sit for about an hour to amp up the flavor.  I also crushed up the tomatoes after they were in the pot, it really helped, and it made the broth turn the pretty red Tom Yum color that you see in restaurants.


On the side, chop up the chicken and cook it, along with the onions and mushrooms.  I made the mistake of cooking my chicken with the broth and everything else, so it cooked for wayyyy too long and got tough.  I also threw in the onions/mushrooms beforehand, and seeing as the broth doesn’t need the mushroom/onion flavor I think adding these vegetables last lets them keep their integrity and provide a little contrast to the broth.


After an hour, throw in your veggies/chicken & voilá!  Tom Yum Gai.  Super easy right?  My only complaint about Tom Yum(even the BEST Tom Yum that I’ve had in a restaurant) is that the lemongrass and galangal root have a really tough texture that makes them unpleasant to eat, so if you don’t feel like eating around them(like I usually do) strain them out before you add your protein and edible vegetables.



Thai people tend to leave everything in their food when they cook it, be it lemongrass, shrimp shells, or chicken bones.  They actually eat the shrimp shells(and possibly the bones too but I’m not sure), but I make a fool of myself every time I eat it at a restaurant and have to awkwardly pick the shells out of my soup.  However, all the extra bits like shells are what gives things flavor, so that’s probably another reason why Thai food is so good.  Yes, bones and shells may seem gross if you’re unfamiliar with them, but they really do help any dish.

So there you have it, homemade Tom Yum Gai.  It was REALLY freaking good, although I think next time I’m going to throw in more big chunky edible vegetables, and leave the chicken chunks larger.  I also can’t wait to try this with seafood.


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