Creamy Tom Yam Kung (Tom Yam Kung Nam Khon ต้มยำกุ้งน้ำข้น)



After I’d made a passing reference to creamy Tom Yam Kung earlier, people have been asking me to talk more about this newer variation of Tom Yam which has taken Bangkok by storm in the last several years. Purists, as you may have guessed, are less than thrilled about it. (Dairy in a traditional savory Thai dish = anathema.)

The late former prime minister of Thailand, Samak Sundaravej, recounted the time when he visited the kitchen of “a certain famous hotel by the Chao Phraya river” some years ago and saw the chef add milk [1] to Tom Yam Kung. Puzzled, the food critic-cum-politician asked the chef for the reason only to be informed that, “The foreigners love it.” Shortly after the incident, he visited a noodle shop on the way to work. The cook, wrote Sundaravej, started fulfilling his order, then stopped to spend an inordinate amount of time rifling through stuff in an ice box. As he’d later learned, the guy was searching for a box of UHT milk to add to his order of Tom Yam noodles. Exasperated, Sundaravej pressed him for a reason. “Well, if we could add milk to Tom Yam Kung, why can’t we add milk to Tom Yam noodles?” was the answer.

And that’s when the outspoken ex-premier lost it. This chapter of Sundaravej’s book detailing his various eating expeditions ends with, “I really want to know what those who insist on adding milk to Tom Yam want to achieve.” [2]

I don’t think he ever got an answer.

Is there an answer?

Creamy Tom Yam is a raging trend, and trying to stop it, regardless of how justified the attempt, is akin to creating a river dam out of your two hands. You can’t win. I don’t quite know where I stand on the issue, but here’s a recipe for those who have asked for it.

Some tips on how to make creamy Tom Yam Kung and the recipe can be found on the debut post of my new bi-weekly (for now) column on Serious Eats.

[1] For those wondering why coconut milk, a traditional Thai ingredient, is not used to create creaminess in Tom Yam, the reason is most likely because a cousin of Tom Yam that is made with coconut milk already exists.

[2] Samak Sundaravej, “Chim Pai, Bon Pai (Tasting and Ranting)” (ชิมไป บ่นไป), pp. 24-25.

10 Responses to Creamy Tom Yam Kung (Tom Yam Kung Nam Khon ต้มยำกุ้งน้ำข้น)

  1. Serfie February 8, 2012 at 6:28 am #

    I love your anecdote about Samak and Tom Yam Kung.

    When I was living in Bangkok, I decided I was going to cook Thai food to impress a date.

    One of the dishes was Tom Yam Kung and I remember my date decided to fix it, but to my surprise she didn’t fix it with fish sauce or an acid like lime to season it, but added a little milk to it instead.

    That was my first introduction to creamy Tom Yam Kung and that was about 10 years ago.

    I don’t think it was a farang influence because most farang I know would have no clue about adding milk to Tom Yam Kung.

    My preference is it to be clear.

  2. Admin February 8, 2012 at 10:40 am #

    Serfie – That is funny! I have no idea how this milk in Tom Yam thing got started either. And I agree with you that this is most likely not something started by foreigners. My theory is that somebody borrowed the idea from a dish like Pu Pad Pong Kari the modern version of which has evaporated milk in it.

  3. Kristen February 8, 2012 at 4:28 pm #

    congrats on the Serious Eats column, you will be fantastic! Interesting article, will head over to SE.

  4. Smitten ByFood February 9, 2012 at 2:37 am #

    Love your blog..you take very good pictures =)

  5. Tanvi, a.k.a. The Hathi February 9, 2012 at 3:19 am #

    This looks fantastic! Congrats on the serious eats column!

  6. perudelights February 9, 2012 at 1:38 pm #

    This looks very similar to our Peruvian “chupe de camarones”, which is basically a seafood soup WITH milk AND a fried egg on top, to make thing worse! hahaha. The world is becoming such a small place, and tastes and flavours are fusing together across countries and continents. This may very well be proof of that.

  7. Elizabeth February 10, 2012 at 9:38 pm #

    I am a fan of brothy tom yam kung, but I have added strained yogurt at times, thinking I was going for a sort of Indian-Thai hybrid. I’m glad to know there is a precedent. Because of yogurt’s tartness, I ease up on the lime juice. Look forward to trying with uncultured dairy as well.

  8. Fast Forward February 15, 2012 at 6:28 pm #

    Hilarious – purists indeed.
    Cooking is an art and like all art, the artist has the right (and power) to control the outcome. There are no rules, it is not illegal and ‘change’ must be embraced with vigor. Without experimentation everything becomes stagnant. Changing the name of the dish is of course an option.

  9. More Cowbell March 8, 2012 at 5:18 pm #

    “the foreigners love it.”

    Heh. The Thai answer to Tikka Masala. 😉

  10. LunaCafe March 16, 2012 at 9:05 pm #

    This looks amazing. Wish I had a bowl right now. 🙂 …Susan