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What is Tom Yum Soup?

Diane Goettel
Updated May 16, 2024
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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.

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.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Diane Goettel
By Diane Goettel
"Diane Goettel has a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in English from Brooklyn College. Diane lives in Mount Vernon, New York with her husband, Noah. They are the proud parents of a Doberman Pinscher named Spoon. Specialties: book editing, book marketing, book publishing, freelance writing, magazine publishing, magazine writing, copywriting,"
Discussion Comments
By Planch — On Aug 12, 2010

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.

By CopperPipe — On Aug 12, 2010

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.

By pleats — On Aug 12, 2010

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.

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel
"Diane Goettel has a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in English from Brooklyn College. Diane lives in Mount...
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