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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Thai Seafood Soup

I never liked Thai food until I went to Thailand. The Thai food I had eaten before my travels was a transgression against the cuisine: insipid oily noodles stirred with ketchup and finished with a dusting of crushed peanuts. Backpacking throughout Asia, however, changed the definition of Thai food for me. During my soujourn, I ate a lot of street food, the ground zero of authentic cuisine in Asia.

I remember my first night in Bangkok in the backpack mecca, Khao San. It’s a small steamy neighbourhood that attracts the budget traveler and the curious. The streets pulse into the night with hypnotic beats of trance music, and burst with locals and weary travellers who descend upon Khao San for a little excitement and if time permits, for a little down time. I was mesmerized by the sights, sounds, and smells of the neighbourhood including the street vendors who serve pad thai fresh from their carts.

Through my travels, I have found that the best authentic foods may be found amongst the locals. Food created on the streets, away from the tourist-friendly restaurants, that cater to local preferences and not adapted or muted for Western palates. Thailand is no exception. Imagine the street chef throwing lashings of oil that sizzle in the hot wok and crescendo into a fragrant smoky cloud. He tosses in a ladleful of wet rice noodles, then add a dash of nam pla (fish sauce), tamarind, and a spoonful each of chilli and sugar for good measure. He tosses it about until the flavours come together in harmony. Then the adept street chef reaches for an egg and with a quick flick of the wrist, the noodles have been pushed aside and the egg sizzles and sputters at the bottom of the wok. Chop, chop and he mixes bits of scrambled egg with the rice noodles. Now the dish is finished with a handful of bean sprouts and cilantro. The vendor scoops out the noodles into a small paper dish with a sprinkle of crushed peanuts and a little nub of lime on the side. That’s pad thai in Thailand. It is neither heavy nor red. Authentic pad thai is light, tangy, crunchy, and chewy.

Several years ago, I had an opportunity to go back to Thailand and this time visiting Chiang Mai was my number one priority. I had read about the abundance of artisans, the beautiful architecture of the inner city and the wide selection of cooking schools. Located in the northern part of the country, it is far from the conjested swollen streets of Bangkok. Chiang Mai is a temperate, lush and friendly city with a robust night market scene. On a nightly basis, families and friends gather in the city’s various markets for a little dinner, a little shopping and a lot of laughter. Most night markets have an area dedicated to food, like an open-air food court. Individually, they don’t have an extensive menu, and you often have to source your meal from several vendors. Some vendors only sell drinks, while others specialize in seafood, and others in dessert. This gives you an opportunity to walk around, see what’s fresh and try something new. With an open mind, eating in Chiang Mai or Thailand for that matter, is a very rewarding experience.

One of my favourite selections from the night market is Tom Yum soup. Just one taste reminds me of those long breezy nights in Chiang Mai. Tom Yum is not shy or delicate. It’s bold and complex: fiery heat from the chilis, tangy sweetness from the tamarind, and a broth that is deeply infused with the exotic fragrances of lime leaves and lemongrass. In my version of this Thai soup, I toned down the heat a smidge and added slippery vermicelli noodles to make this into a belly warming supper that is highly slurpable and suitable for all.

Thai Seafood Soup
Serves 4

To slice the chicken thinly, I use a frozen chicken breast. Let it partially defrost so that it is firm but easy to slice through with a sharp knife

1 l of chicken stock + 2 c of water
1 lemongrass stalk, cut into 3” segments, bruised
2 lime leaves
1 inch slice of ginger, bruised
2 tbsp nam pla (fish sauce)
8 mushrooms (straw mushrooms, white button, shitake, enoki)
handful of cilantro (cut away stems from the leaves, reserve stems)

1 chicken breast, partially frozen
16 large shrimp (peeled, shells reserved)
½ package of rice noodles, softened in warm water

to garnish:
8 cherry tomatoes, quartered
lime slice
fried shallots*

1. To make the soup, simmer chicken broth, water, lemongrass, lime leaves, ginger, fish sauce, shrimp shells, and cilantro stems for approximately 20 minutes. Strain away solids.
2. Bring stock to a boil again.
3. Meanwhile, heat noodles in a separate pot. Heat the noodles until they are soft and slippery.
4. Add chicken pieces. Stir around to ensure it doesn’t stick to the bottom and pieces stay separate. Once the chicken changes from pink to white, add shrimp. Allow it to come up to a simmer again, and the shrimp tails curl. Turn off heat.
5. Strain the noodles and add to a soup bowl.
6. Pour broth, chicken pieces and shrimp over the noodles.
7. Garnish with cherry tomatoes, lime and fried shallots*

*Fried shallots or onions can be found at any Asian grocery store. Absolutely optional but creates an interesting contrast in texture from the soup.

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