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What is Tom Yum Soup?

Tom Yum Soup is a tantalizing Thai masterpiece, bursting with bold flavors of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, and chili. This hot and sour concoction often features succulent shrimp or chicken, mingling with mushrooms in a fragrant broth. Dive into the vibrant world of Thai cuisine and discover how Tom Yum captivates the senses. Ready to explore its secrets?
Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel

Tom yum soup is a kind of Thai soup that is known for its broth which is both savory, spicy, and sour. In translation from its Thai name, tom yum is also sometimes spelled tom yam and dom yam. All three of these spellings, however, refer to the same dish. This soup is very popular in Thailand and in Thai restaurants abroad. In fact, it is arguably one of the most popular Thai dishes worldwide.

The broth of this soup is made with fish sauce, galangal, shallots, lemon grass, lime leaves, lime juice, and tamarind. Crushed chilies are also added to the basic stock to give it its spiciness. It is also the chili that lends the characteristic deep orange color to the broth. A distinguishing characteristic is the generous amount of herbs that are used in the soup's creation. It is often topped with a small pile of fresh cilantro leaves, which are also known as "coriander." Straw or oyster mushrooms, or both, are also a part of most tom yum soup recipes.

Tom yum soup is often topped by cilantro.
Tom yum soup is often topped by cilantro.

In addition to a tasty broth topped with fresh fragrant greens, tom yum soup also generally includes proteins. While some Thai restaurants in the West offer this soup with tofu, this is not a traditional way of serving the dish. Rather, the common proteins added to tom yum broth are chicken, shrimp or prawns, fish, or a mix of seafood. Depending on which type of protein is added to the soup, the name of the dish is modified. The key below will teach you to distinguish between the different kinds of the soup:

  • Tom yum gai: A soup with chicken
  • Tom yum goong: A soup with prawns or shrimp
  • Tom yum pla: A soup with fish
  • Tom yum talay/po taek: A soup with mixed seafood.
  • Tom yum khon: A less popular version of the soup in which coconut milk is added to the broth

    Some food manufacturers offer a tom yum paste that is made of the basic ingredients in the soup. This paste can be reconstituted into a broth. Traditionally, however, the soup is meant to be made with mostly fresh ingredients. While the paste may offer nice flavor, it may not be exactly like that of the traditional soup.

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel

In addition to her work as a freelance writer for DelightedCooking, Diane is the executive editor of Black Lawrence Press, an independent publishing company based in upstate New York. She has also edited several anthologies, the e-newsletter Sapling, and The Adirondack Review. Diane has a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.A. from Brooklyn College.

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Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel

In addition to her work as a freelance writer for DelightedCooking, Diane is the executive editor of Black Lawrence Press, an independent publishing company based in upstate New York. She has also edited several anthologies, the e-newsletter Sapling, and The Adirondack Review. Diane has a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.A. from Brooklyn College.

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Discussion Comments

Planch

Although I know it's not terribly traditional, I do love vegetarian tom yum soup. I think it has enough flavor on its own without adding in the meat.

CopperPipe

I love tom yum soup! My favorite Thai restaurant always has a really good tom yum chicken soup (they make it fresh every day), so that's the first thing I get every time I go there.

pleats

Now I've had tom yum kung, which is tom yum made with shrimp, and I have to say, unless you can handle a lot of spice, this is not the soup for you.

I couldn't handle more than a few spoonfuls, and I can usually take spicy food. I think it was just something about the combination of the spiciness with the heavy lime/cilantro flavor that did me in.

Either way, I won't be trying it again.

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    • Tom yum soup is often topped by cilantro.
      By: Amber DeGrace
      Tom yum soup is often topped by cilantro.
    • Tom yum soup often includes shallots.
      Tom yum soup often includes shallots.
    • Oyster mushrooms are commonly used in tom yum soup.
      By: Africa Studio
      Oyster mushrooms are commonly used in tom yum soup.
    • Herbs can greatly enhance the flavor when making tom yum chicken soup.
      By: Studio Gi
      Herbs can greatly enhance the flavor when making tom yum chicken soup.