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Spice up your culinary routine

Tan Hsueh Yun on 20 Oct 2019

The Straits Times


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After a too-short holiday in Bangkok, I decided I would make tom yum soup from scratch - using ingredients that can all be found in Golden Mile Complex


I have come to realise that it is alarmingly easy to get stuck in a grocery rut. There are things, such as soya milk and silken tofu, that I order every week from RedMart. Red dragon fruit, which go into smoothies I make with the soya stuff, I get from random fruit stalls I come upon when out and about. Fish collars and buri fillets from Meidi-Ya when they are a good price. Grocery shopping is, you know, routine.


And dreadfully boring.


One Saturday afternoon, because I was eating for work nearby, I decided to go to the Thai supermarket at Golden Mile Complex. I love that place. It is a treasure trove of snacks, sauces and herbs. I can think of nothing better than to spend a couple of hours looking at the shelves of stuff. And stopping to buy a bag of fried bananas near the cashiers, the hot little fritters covered with a crisp armour rich with coconut milk and flecked with sesame seeds.


But I do not go as often as I would like to, and that must change.


That Saturday, I found something wonderful in the vegetable section - fresh straw mushrooms.


If you have only ever had the canned ones, you must try them fresh. Juicy and a little earthy, they are such a joy to eat. That day, I also picked up a bag of the tiniest purple eggplant and a couple of other things.


With them, I made a dead simple stir-fry with oyster sauce stirring in lemon juice stirred in after I turned off the heat. That was my Sunday meal prep for the week and it made for many happy meals.


So of course I kept going back and getting those mushrooms. Who knows how long the season will last?


I thought of other ways to use them. Would they be good sauteed with butter and piled on top of toast? Maybe, but I think baby portobellos are better for that. In risotto with other kinds of mushrooms? Perhaps.


After a too-short holiday in Bangkok, I decided I would make tom yum soup from scratch, starring those mushrooms. The irony is that I did not have tom yum soup with any of my meals until I got to the airport for the flight home. The creamy version I had there hit all the right spots.


Back home, I was thrilled when I found those mushrooms again. They are perfect in tom yum, soaking up the hot, sour, spicy and sweet broth.


The best thing is that you can get all the ingredients at that supermarket in Golden Mile Complex - the mushrooms, prawns, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, limes, everything. I add nam prik pao, Thai chilli paste, to the soup and that is available too, of course. I have tried the Pantai and Maepranom brands and prefer the latter - it is more punchy and lively in tom yum. To make creamy tom yum like the one I had at the airport, add a few tablespoons of evaporated milk. Needless to say, you can get this at the supermarket too.


I always have Red Boat fish sauce at home but if you do not, there are several brands available at the supermarket. The best ones are from Vietnam. Look for Lien Thanh Gold or Hanh Phuc.


If, on the label, there is a number followed by an N next to it, pick a bottle with a number above 40. That number tells you the number of grams of nitrogen in each litre of the fish sauce. The higher the number, the more fish went into making the sauce and the better it generally is.


Because straw mushrooms have a breathtakingly short shelf life, buy them the day you make the tom yum. Spoilt straw mushrooms leak brown liquid and are spongy. If you would rather not try fresh straw mushrooms, or if the supply dries up, substitute with oyster mushrooms or fleshy eryngii - or both.


Since that afternoon, I have been reacquainting myself with Thai vegetables, flowers and herbs. Cowslip creeper flowers and dok khae or Sesbania flowers are great sauteed with minced pork. I am going to buy a bunch of cha om and make a frittata with the pungent vegetable soon. The funk evaporates on cooking and I used to love the cha om omelette at First Thai in Purvis Street.


I have also bought a couple more things to add zing to my cooking. Dusky pink tomatoes for som tum and a jar of pickled garlic. On my trip, I had supper in a Thai-Teochew porridge restaurant with Singaporean chef Tan Cong Wen and his girlfriend May. They run Brassica in Nang Linchi, a casual restaurant serving excellent doughnuts and fried chicken and we struck up a conversation when I ate there.


They ordered up a storm and I fell in love with an omelette studded with crunchy, zippy shards of the garlic. That will now go into whatever I cook next.


I'm re-discovering other cool grocery haunts too. After a dosa dinner with a friend in Little India, we came upon Sri Murugan and I was enchanted by the smell of ripe guava at the entrance. The one I bought was pink inside, sweet and absolutely delicious. I have since gone back for little finger bananas, small pomegranates and more of those guavas, which fill my home with a wild, jungle smell.


I look longingly at the plantains and when I figure out what to do with them, I will get some too.


Life is too short to be stuck in any kind of rut, don't you think?




  • 500g head-on, shell-on prawns
  • 25 to 30g fresh coriander, roots attached
  • 1.5 litres water
  • 250 to 300g fresh straw mushrooms (right)
  • 40g galangal
  • 3 stalks lemongrass
  • 8 to 10 kaffir lime leaves
  • 4 to 5 bird's eye chillies
  • 2 Tsp fish sauce
  • 2 Tsp sugar
  • 3 Tsp Thai chilli paste
  • Juice of four to five large limes




1. Place the prawns in a large colander and rinse under running water. Remove the heads and peel off the shell, stopping short of the tail. Place heads and shells in a medium pot. Slice the root end off the coriander, rinse under running water, bruise with a meat mallet and place in the pot with the shells. Add the water, bring to a boil, then cook 20 minutes on medium heat.


2. In the meantime, devein the prawns, and roughly chop the coriander and set both aside.


3. Rinse the mushrooms under running water, cut them in half and set aside.


4. Slice the galangal into thin rounds. Bash the bulbous part of the lemongrass with the meat mallet and cut the stalk crosswise into three or four pieces. Stack the kaffir lime leaves, make tears along the sides into the central stem of the leaf. Slice the chillies in half lengthwise, retaining the stalk.


5. When the stock is ready, strain out and discard the shells and coriander roots. You should have 1 to 1.2 litres of prawn stock. Add the galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and chilli to the stock. Bring to a boil, turn heat down to medium and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the fish sauce, sugar and Thai chilli paste. Stir to combine. Bring the soup back to a rolling boil.



6. Add the prawns, turn off the heat and let them cook in the residual heat. Add the lime juice. Have a taste and add more chilli, fish sauce, sugar or lime juice if needed. Garnish with the fresh coriander.


Serves four as part of a meal with other dishes


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.


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