I got acquainted with Thai food long before I first set foot in Thailand.
And my first love — for Thai food, that is — is the one and only Tom Yam Kung, or hot-sour soup with prawns.
Incidentally, when I was pregnant with the twins, I craved for mee hoon tom yam (rice vermicelli with tom yam broth) day and night, usually at night. It was one of the few things that I could keep down when my morning sickness was at its peak. Actually, ‘morning sickness’ is not the accurate term, as the waves of nausea always came in the early evenings. I distinctly remember sitting up on my bed, a huge mound of pillows around me and behind me propping me up (as lying down only made it worse), staring in the semi-darkness (bright lights seemed to make it worse!), waiting for the bout of nausea to pass, mercifully falling asleep most of the time.
It must have been the spicy-sour taste of the tom yam broth that did the trick — the fiery heat coming from the bird’s eye chilli (a.k.a. siling labuyo in Tagalog or cili padi in Malay) and the sourness from the kaffir lime leaves (daun limau purut in Malay) and lime juice.
Its sourness is not the same as the sourness of the Philippine sinigang though, because it is more towards citrusy, as most restaurants would use lime (Malay: limau nipis, Tagalog: dayap) or lemon (Malay: limau kasturi, Tagalog/Cebuano: kalamansi) whereas sinigang relies on tamarind (Malay: asam jawa, Tagalog/Cebuano: sampalok).
And the tom yam’s taste is very distinctive, thanks to the combination of lemon grass (more commonly known as tanglad in the Philippines, serai in Malaysia and Indonesia), galangal (Malay lengkuas) and fresh coriander leaves, with the onion and tomato playing supporting roles.
Different restaurants have their own recipes and, I’m told, it also varies slightly across different regions in Thailand. So how fiery the soup gets depends on the cook’s recipe, or more accurately, on the amount of bird’s eye chilli that the cook puts in, or if the chilli is sliced or just ‘bruised’, or if it’s added into the broth towards the end or boiled with the other spices.
If you happen to get one of the hot and fiery ones, you’ll feel like one of those cartoon characters whose mouth is on fire, smoke coming out of your ears, eyes watering and all. Surprisingly, the tom yam kung I’ve tasted in Thailand are not as spicy as the ones I’ve tried in Malaysia.
Now please excuse me, as all this talk about food is making me hungry… ;)