I learned to make Thai soups on a cooking course in Chiang Mai, and couldn’t quite believe how little effort went into something so vibrant, flavoursome and punchy. The creation of a prawn tom yum took under five minutes, and simply involved throwing some ingredients into a wok of simmering water. The resulting broth was heady, sinus-clearing and fresh, and I resolved to make these simple soups a staple in my kitchen upon my return. Now there is something vaguely ritualistic about their creation, as I chop through galangal, lemongrass and chillies with the small cleaver I bought in a Thai market, picking kaffir lime leaves off the plant in my conservatory and pouring rich, zesty coconut broth into deep bowls lined with a tangle of soft rice noodles.
Tom kha gai, Thai chicken soup with galangal, is my favourite. Some of the versions I ate in Thailand were so creamy they were almost dessert-like, but for the smack of chilli and the savoury rasp of woody, pungent galangal. This creamy coconut soup is comforting yet hot and spicy at the same time, complex and rich with lemongrass, coriander and lime leaves, and punctuated by sweet tomatoes and earthy mushrooms. I’ve tweaked my recipe since Thailand to come up with the perfect version, to which I add rice noodles for bulk and to make it into a complete meal. It’s one of my favourite things to eat when I’m feeling cold, tired, lazy, fat or under the weather, because it takes minutes to make and the resulting broth can be sipped soothingly from a huge bowl in a ritual that is almost meditative.
Wanting a bowl of this soup recently, but not having any chicken in the house, I decided to use cubes of steamed pumpkin instead of animal protein. Pumpkin is in ready supply in my kitchen at the moment, and it goes very well with coconut-based Asian dishes. I think I now prefer this version to the meaty one. The pumpkin becomes meltingly tender, fudgy and sweet, a perfect complement to the sweet-sour-salty-hot coconut broth, and it works well with the sharpness of cherry tomatoes, which stop everything becoming too cloying. It also means this version is suitable for vegetarians and even vegans (use vegetable stock instead of chicken stock, and swap the fish sauce for soy sauce). The key is getting the seasoning right: adjust the balance of salty/sour/hot/sweet to your own taste. I like it with lots of lime juice and lime leaves, and a hefty pinch of brown sugar for warming indulgence.
Thai coconut noodle soup with pumpkin (serves 2):
- 300g pumpkin, deseeded and cut into 1.5-inch cubes (peeled if you like)
- 120g thick flat rice noodles
- 500ml water
- 200ml coconut milk
- 2 tsp chicken or vegetable stock powder
- 1 stick lemongrass, bruised
- 1-inch piece galangal, sliced thinly
- 2 red chillies, halved lengthways (or more if you like it spicy!)
- 6 kaffir lime leaves, torn in half
- 2 shallots, finely sliced
- 10 button mushrooms, halved
- 14 cherry tomatoes, halved
- 2 tsp fish sauce
- 1 tsp brown sugar
- Juice of half a lime
- 4 tbsp fresh coriander or Thai basil, chopped
- Lime wedges, to serve
First, steam the cubes of pumpkin over boiling water (I use a bamboo steamer) until tender – about 15 minutes. Set aside.
Boil the rice noodles for two minutes until al dente, then drain and rinse with cold water. Divide between two large soup bowls, then divide the pumpkin pieces between the two bowls, placing them on top of the noodles.
Put the water, stock powder and coconut milk in a large saucepan and bring to the boil. Turn down to a simmer and add the lemongrass, galangal, chillies and lime leaves. Simmer for a few minutes, then add the shallots and simmer for a minute.
Add the mushrooms, simmer for another couple of minutes, then add the cherry tomatoes. Season with the fish sauce, sugar and lime juice. Taste and adjust the balance if necessary – it should be sweet but also sour and spicy.
Pour over the noodles and pumpkin in the bowls and sprinkle with the coriander. Serve with lime to squeeze over.