Tom Yum Soup

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One of my favourite soups to make at home is tom yum soup. I learned a version of it at the Chiang Mai cooking school and never looked back since. It’s dead easy to make from scratch and even adding tom yum paste is optional. Granted, the ingredients aren’t the easiest to find, but I’m finding that more and more shops are stocking them. Some of my local supermarkets even sell tom yum starter packs with lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, garlic, shallot, lime and chilli in them. What  I normally do is buy a bit more of the herbs when I see them, prepare them and chuck them in the freezer. With a bit of forward planning, a fragrant spicy soup can be made from frozen to tummy in minutes. If you’d like the soup a little spicier, there’s no need to add more chilli, just pound the chilli padi into smaller bits.

For today’s soup, I had some seafood and plenty of prawns and their shells. I also had some spare chicken bones and made a lovely stock from boiling the bones and the prawn shells and heads together for about 10 minutes. The prawn heads, especially when I squeezed out the orangey guts, gave the stock an intensely briny prawn flavour. You can make the soup with plain water, it’ll still be fragrant but not as robust.

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Ingredients:
15 prawns, shelled
1 large squid, prepared
1 clove garlic, smashed and peeled
1 shallot, peeled
2 thick slices galangal
2 kaffir lime leaves
3 stalks lemongrass, cut diagonally into thick slices
1 chilli padi, smashed

1 small punnet cherry tomatoes (about 16)
1 small bag oyster mushrooms (about 12), torn into large chunks

juice of one big lime
2 tbsp fish sauce

1 bunch coriander, leaves only

Method:

  1. Make stock from the prawn shells and head by boiling them in 2 litres of water for 1o minutes. Strain the stock into a separate pot for making soup.
  2. Add the garlic, shallot, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass and chilli padi to the stock and bring to a boil. Next, add the prawns, squid, tomatoes and mushroom and bring to the boil again.
  3. Off the heat, add the lime juice and fish sauce sparingly, tasting as you go along, till you get the right balance of sour and salty.
  4. Serve, garnishing with coriander leaves.

Serves 4.

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June in Thailand: The Stir-Fry Fireball and Other Cooking Adventures

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The highlight of Chiang Mai was something I hadn’t planned: cooking classes. I was intrigued by the large number of courses on offer at the various guesthouses. Cooking classes seemed as popular as day treks to the hilltribe villages. Tom and I decided that we just had to go for one. We chose The Best Thai Cookery School, run by the inimitable Permpoon “call me Perm” Nabnian, not just because of the price but also because of the almost shameless self-promotion on the brochure.

The morning started off from the back of his pickup truck, a nicely converted vehicle with fairly comfy seats at the back. He picked us all up personally, squeezed us all in the truck, and took us on a tour of a little local market. Here, he took us through the entire encyclopedia of Thai vegetables and herbs. Being Southeast Asian, I thought I’d be familiar with all he’d show us, but I was surprised when he showed us another version of ginger I didn’t know. Of course there was the regular ginger, there was blue ginger (galangal) and yellow ginger (turmeric). But there was also something called lesser or finger ginger, which he’s holding up on the left hand side of the picture. I also learned that Thai basil and holy basil were different plants, both also quite different from the sweet basil used in Mediterranean cooking.

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Aside from that, it was lovely to see the great variety of herbs and vegetables available in the Thai market. Seeing the cute rotund green brinjals made me want to set up kitchen there straight away. Along the way, Perm dispensed little tips like don’t be crazy like the Westerners and go for the largest eggs: buy only small eggs because they’re much tastier.

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And the mushrooms! I don’t know why, but fresh straw mushrooms just aren’t available in Singapore. I love this stuff in soup, especially tom yam. It really is just too bad that so far I’ve only found this good stuff in Thailand and China.

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Whirl round market over, we bundled back into the pickup and went to his house in the suburbs for the cooking lessons proper. First, we learned how to make mango sticky rice. I was surprised that it was made by steaming instead of the typical boiling my Chinese heritage is familiar with. I’ll share the recipe once I get round to making it at home.

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After a round of demonstrations, we were all obviously itching to go. We weren’t issued the aprons and dish cloths for nothing! We’d each chosen a stir-fry dish: I wanted the minced pork fried with holy basil and Tom went for the fried morning glory. The ingredients were all prepared for us and all we needed to do was a bit of minor chopping.

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After getting the food prep out of the way, we were ready for the most exciting part of the course! We took turns with our partners to do our respective dishes, for safety and also to make sure that there was a photographer to document the momentous occasion. First, we got our ingredients ready and stood by the hot woks. Perm came round adding the oil and checking our work stations.

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At his signal, it was time! With a great roar, the flames leapt up together with lots of smoke and exclamations from the more timid of the lot.

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It’s just too bad that the pictures didn’t really do it justice because the flames really went pretty high.

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They only truly died down when I added in the sauce ingredients.

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And there was my minced pork with holy basil replete with plenty of wok hei. Now this is how you do it!

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Next, Perm taught us how to make papaya salad (which I’d already learned by observing the people at the street stand in Laos!) and deep fried banana spring rolls.

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The fun tip I learned here was to use a cut up banana like a glue stick to seal the spring roll wrappers. In my greed, I later forgot to take pictures of them, so no you can’t see the finished product. However, what you can see is me grinning maniacally while making my spring roll.

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We proceeded on to making our own curries and carb dish. I made jungle curry and khao tom. Didn’t quite like the jungle curry but loved the khao tom. And I realise now that khao tom is all about the right kind of soy sauce and also the sprinkling of chinese parsley on top. Tom made a very yummy massaman curry and pad thai. Look at his pleased expression cooking it up! He had rather a short-lived (5 minutes to be exact) of going back to Wales to set up a Thai restaurant.

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As a bonus, Perm also very generously taught Tom and me to make coconut and banana soup. It’s pretty much the same as the soup we make further south in Malaysia and Singapore, just that I think our version is slightly better because we use the more fragrant gula melaka rather than white sugar. Nonetheless, we assembled all our cooking out in the patio and shared the food. It was all very very good, especially since many of my classmates were cooking for the first time. Just goes to show how good Perm is!

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Of course I had to have a parting shot with the chef himself. He was industriously preparing for the evening class already and I had to catch him at the back before he drove us back to town!

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June in Thailand: Muay Thai

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Tom had already seen a muay thai fight, so I went with Erico to check it out. Sure, the place we went to in Chiang Mai was hardly Bangkok’s Lumpini Stadium, but it was reasonably priced and we just wanted to see any muay thai, not necessarily the top in class which we might not appreciate anyway. For a drink and some ringside action, it was quite a deal for us tourists.

I was quite dismayed at the beginning to see that most fights were between really young looking children who looked no older than 10! It felt almost like child abuse to watch them slugging it out in the ring with such precociousness. It was then that I realised why the prices were so low: muay thai fighters started training from a young age and of course the lower level championships were much cheaper to watch than the higher level ones with correspondingly higher stakes.

After the children finished slugging it out, the last two matches were of at least teenagers. Here there’s a video showing the pre-fight ritual dance in which the fighter practices some stylised moves to show respect to his coach, the audience, and the spirit of muay thai.

And then the action begins! The two launched into kicking and punching from the get-go, though there were a few too many clinches that got the referee (and the audience) pretty annoyed.

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The awesome and of course dangerous thing about muay thai is that just about anywhere on the body is fair game. Here there’s a flying kick straight to the head, crazy stuff.

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Erico wanted to put in a bet on who’d win. I refrained because I normally have the worst luck at betting. Now I can’t remember who won that bout, just that I remember that the guy I put my mental bet on lost. C’est la vie.

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The last round was a really odd one, it was a bit like a blindfolded Battle Royale where a whole bunch of fighters were blind-folded and stuck in the ring to battle it out with everyone and anyone. Of course there wasn’t any point in betting on this, it was really just for laughs.

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The funniest bit was seeing the fighters mock-fall on the ground and try to avoid being stepped on.

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When the vaudeville music was over, it was time to leave and find a cheaper place for beer. We had it at what was proudly “may be the smallest bar in the world” and “not recommended by Lonely Planet.” We sat down to our Leo beers and then I promptly had a headache. Give me the light, smooth taste of Singha anytime!

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June in Thailand: Chiang Mai Street Scenes

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After getting the obligatory temple sightseeing out of the way, I felt freer to poke around and enjoy the little sights and sounds that make a city special. Here was an imaginatively vandalised street sign that to me seemed to add to the sign rather than turn it into a nuisance.

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The monkey head was cute, but I also liked how the authorities didn’t do anything to clean up the sign, leaving pop culture to do its thang here.

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Then there were the curiously well-meaning signs like the “Dangerous Zone” one below. There really wasn’t much to that area except that a pipe had probably been recently cemented over, creating probably the tiniest bump ever on the road. Exactly why it was a dangerous zone, I’d never know.

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Now more interesting was the famous night market down one of the main streets of Chiang Mai. There was of course a huge variety of items on sale, but the most exciting thing for me were the stall selling deep fried creepy crawlies.

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There was an incredible selection of the stuff from bamboo worms to crickets to scorpions, sold either loose by weight or in pre-packed portions.

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Erico was completely game for the variety fun pack that had crickets, bamboo worms and I can’t quite remember what other insects inside. They were all deep fried to a crisp and tasted of not much else aside from oil, really. Still, I couldn’t handle it and only barely managed to swallow the crunchy bits of bamboo worm. There wasn’t much to it except that bits of the carapace got stuck in my throat. Erico quite happily ate the rest and wasn’t too impressed by the taste of the frying oil. Seems like none of the insects tasted of anything much at all!

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Fear factor over, on other days we had the famous Chiang Mai noodles, khao soi, which were completely different from the Lao version of the same name. It was a sort of chicken curry with yellow noodles, except that the broth was more thin soup than thick curry, and was served with herbs, salted preserved vegetables (yum!) and topped with deep fried crispy shredded wanton skin.

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Chiang Mai is also home to the world-renown mango sticky rice. Here, it was both cheap and very, very good. No matter where you go in Thailand and especially Chiang ,Mai the rice is always perfectly steamed till just past al dente and the mango always sweet and perfumey.

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June in Thailand: Chiang Mai

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Chiang Mai is probably the #2 city after Bangkok to visit when you go to Thailand. The feel of the northern capital is completely different, there’s far less of the cosmopolitan bustle and it’s a lot more relaxed and chill. The temples here are also obviously of a different architectural style from the south, and seem to be made from more rustic looking materials. Despite being pretty much templed-out, I did a quick whirl of the temples in Chiang Mai, just to complete the circuit as far as possible.

The first stop was at one of the minor temples and I can’t remember the name. I liked the sweeping curve of the roof and the graceful arcs of the protective guardians sitting on top.

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The Lanna-style temples are no less sumptuous and grand than those in the south, here evidenced by gold contrasted against the green background.

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Then there was the beautiful Wat Chiang Mun, supposedly the oldest temple in Chiang Mai. The grand wooden structure was intricately carved all over and overlaid with gold leaf.

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Check out the detail on this side door.

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On the inside, some of the doors also had lovely designs, this time of gold on enamel.

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And all this grandeur was to house a whole host of Buddha images, with the biggest one some thousand years old tafrom India, and the most revered one a tiny crystal Buddha image thought to have the power to bring rain.

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On the outside of some of the temples were interesting gates made from clay. These were rather low and small, so only one person at a time could pass through stooping.

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Again, I enjoyed how Thai craftsmen could made such beautiful works of art out of rustic materials.

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One new thing I learned was how alms were collected in some of these temples. Monks of course would do their rounds  with their alms bowls in the morning to collect food from devotees. I knew that the monks were to accept whatever was given them and not to quibble or choose. Having all the food in one bowl meant that everything was mixed up and that  one bowl would hold sustenance for the day. In one of the temples I visited, the monks’ alms bowls were laid out on tables for devotees to offer whatever they wanted into whichever bowl they chose. It was somewhat like a lottery because the monks would accept whatever appeared in their own bowl. What a way to learn not to want!

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Wat Chedi Luang was probably the most compelling temple in Chiang Mai. With its massive structure still very obvious, its former grandeur is still very apparent. It must have been even more magnificent before a 16th century earthquake took away much of the top part of the pagoda.

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It had just been restored in the 1990s, although the damaged part had been retained, probably because after so many hundreds of years, they felt it should stay as it was.

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I particularly liked the restored elephants sticking out from all four sides of the pagoda. It was grand and, to me, slightly absurd at the same time. It was a nice way to end the temple tour and get ready for the kitschier side of Chiang Mai.

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Southeast Asian-Style Coca Cola Chicken Noodle Soup

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This is a rather odd-sounding recipe. It’s inspired to some point by the famous Kai Tun Coke in Chiang Mai (even though I haven’t tried the McCoy yet) and from eating my way around Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. I know that most people don’t have a leftover Coke problem when they have guests over, but I do. This recipe used up my leftovers beautifully.

First, simmer the chicken in an infusion of coke, fish sauce and whatever herbs and spices you like. My recipe is a broad indication, use as many or as few of them as you like. Similarly for my soup toppings: I adore the Viet idea of having a whole herb garden to accompany each meal. Diners would then pick and choose from the basket whatever they liked and added the herbs and vegetables according to preference. I tried to replicate some of it here, so please don’t feel like you have to run out to buy every single topping/garnish. If you just want it in its most bare bones form,  try it with just mint, onion and lime.

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Ingredients:
500 ml coke
4 tbsp fish sauce
1 stalk lemongrass, sliced
1 tsp black peppercorns
2 star anise
4 cloves
2 cardamom pods
1 chicken

kway teow noodles
romaine lettuce
onion, sliced thinly
mint leaves
lime wedges

Optional:

cucumber, cored and cut into matchsticks
long bean, cut into short lengths
beansprouts
red chilli, sliced

coriander leaves
thai holy basil
spring onion

Method:

  1. Combine the coke, fish sauce and herbs in a pot and lower in the chicken, breast-side up. The breast should just about be covered by the liquid.
  2. On low heat, bring to a gentle simmer, cover and cook for 20 minutes.
  3. Allow to cool in its own liquid.
  4. Lift out the chicken carefully and divide into portions ready for serving. Reserve the cooking liquid.

To serve:

  1. Dilute the cooking liquid in an equal amount of water. Bring to a boil and season with fish sauce to taste.
  2. Add the noodles and lettuce. Bring back to the boil.
  3. Divide into bowls, top with the chicken and serve. Diners will add their own garnish according to taste.