Thai Hot & Sour Soup
A vegan version of Thai Tom Yum. A bright and refreshing broth infused with fresh lemongrass, ginger and thai chili peppers. Studded with veggies and shredded tofu for extra protein. Vegan & Gluten Free. <jump to recipe>
Have you ever heard the term "same same, but different"? Well, if you've ever traveled throughout Southeast Asia (and Thailand in particular), then I'd bet you my last jar of nut-butter that you know exactly what I'm talking about. Despite my memories of Thailand growing fuzzier and fuzzier every year, I still find myself reminiscing about my amazing experience there – with the food being one of the absolute highlights (except for that one food poisoning incident, but more on that another day). The Asian side of my family loves Chinese hot and sour soup, so when I came across this soup by the same name in Thailand, I thought I’d been there done that. But boy was I wrong. I was blown away by the robust, flavorful Tom Yum soup made from some of the simplest ingredients. It was clean, bright and refreshing. A genuine "same same, but different" moment - and in the best way possible.
We've had this Thai Hot & Soup on regular rotation recently – because there's nothing like that combination of heat and spice to warm you up from the inside out. It's a riff on a classic Tom Yum – a soup studded with lemongrass, ginger and thai chili peppers. This version is not without modifications of course, because a girl’s gotta have some fun in the kitchen.
Thai recipes have an amazing balance of flavors. It was only after I took a local Thai cooking class that I realized the thought that goes into balancing the salty, sour, sweet and umami notes. Tom Yum soup is a perfect example. The base of the broth has a salty umami richness, which is complemented by a hint of sweetness (traditionally from palm sugar) and a bit of tang from some lime. It's a surprising flavor for a soup – and pretty addicting, in my opinion. It must be, considering how much of it I would slurp down in 105°F / 40°C weather!
When building a vegan version of this soup, I wanted to maintain the same balance of flavor. A lot of the 'flavor' in a traditional Tom Yum soup comes from the meat-based protein, as well as fish sauce. Both of which we’re leaving on the sidelines. And they’re not to be missed, because we landed in a great spot without them! But, trust me when I say the lime juice, liquid aminos (or soy, tamari) and sugar are all absolutely essential! There's only a tiny bit of each required, but they really help balance everything out and your taste buds will appreciate it.
Tofu replaces the meat-based protein that would traditionally be used in this dish. And if you're scrunching up your nose right now because tofu is not your jam, just hear me out. Since there are a lot of bold flavors jostling for attention in this soup, I opted to shred the tofu so that it just mingles quietly in the background. And, because it's thinly shredded, it absorbs more of the soup flavors. Even my carnivorous mother loves it ("it reminds me of shredded chicken, in a good way!"). Thanks mom. In any case, I highly recommend the tofu – but if tofu just aint your thang, just leave it out! The soup works well even without it.
As a guide, this recipe calls for 6 whole thai chili peppers added to the bubbling broth. These peppers are what bring the heat in this recipe. If you know you prefer things on the milder side, reduce the pepper count accordingly. Or if you're a spice fiend, you can slice a couple of the peppers in half before adding them to the broth – they'll release a lot more heat that way. Anguel and I fall into the latter category, so we throw in 3 full chili peppers and 3 cut in half. But please adjust to your needs! It is definitely easier to add spice than take it out.
The soup can be served as is, or with rice noodles if you want to add a bit more heft to the dish. When serving to a crowd, we like to dish up the broth and noodles individually, and allow everyone to pile on extra toppings as desired. Usually we'll serve some extra sliced limes, thai basil, cilantro and chili peppers on the side. Leftovers keep well in the fridge, but it's best to keep the noodles and soup separate (otherwise the noodles will swell). Best case scenario: if you're having the soup for leftovers, prepare the noodles fresh the day of, if possible.
THAI HOT & SOUR SOUP
SERVES 4-6 (VEGAN, GLUTEN FREE)
1 tablespoon coconut oil*
4 stalks lemongrass
1 white onion, diced
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, minced
~6 thai chili peppers (plus extra for garnish)**
8 cups vegetable stock
1 small package of extra-firm tofu (~12 oz / 340 g)
1 1/2 cups cremini mushrooms, sliced
3 medium sized tomatoes, diced
2 cups spinach
1/2 cup thai basil***
Juice from 2 limes (plus extra for garnish)
1 – 2 tablespoons liquid aminos (or soy sauce, tamari)****
1 tablespoon coconut sugar (or other sugar)
Rice Noodles (prepared according to package), optional
Optional garnish: Extra lime wedges, thai basil, thai red chili peppers, cilantro
Slice the ends off each lemongrass stalk (~1-2" or 2.5-5 cm on each side). Use the back of your knife to pound each stalk lightly, to help release the oils. Slice each stalk into 3-4" strips (7-10 cm).
Heat a large pot over medium-high heat. Once hot, add oil and lemongrass stalks. Cook for 3 minutes, stirring regularly. Once the lemongrass is fragrant, add the diced onion. Saute until onion begins to soften (~2 minutes), then add the garlic and ginger. Cook for 1-2 minutes until fragrant, stirring regularly. Add vegetable stock and chili peppers (add chili peppers according to your spice preference). Bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat to medium and cover with a lid.
After 25-30 minutes, strain the stock using a fine-mesh sieve / strainer. Return stock to the pot over medium heat. Using the coarse side of the box grater, shred the block of tofu. Add the shredded tofu, sliced mushrooms and diced tomatoes to the soup. Cook until the mushrooms are soft (~5-7 minutes). Add spinach and stir until it begins to slightly wilt.
Stir in thai basil, juice from 1 lime, 1 tablespoon liquid aminos (or soy / tamari) and 1 tablespoon of sugar. Taste. You'll likely need to add the juice from the 2nd lime, as well as 1 additional tablespoon of liquid aminos (depending on how salty your vegetable broth is). Adjust to taste. If you want to increase the heat, add extra chili peppers (sliced peppers release more heat than whole).
Serve alongside rice noodles (if using) and garnishes such as lime slices, chili peppers, thai basil and cilantro.
-*You may wish to opt for deodorized coconut oil. It doesn't impart the same coconut scent.
-**Thai chili peppers are quite hot. Reduce or add peppers depending on your preferred spice level. Putting the chili peppers into the soup whole will make for a milder spiced soup, whereas cutting them in half will result in a much hotter soup.
-***Thai basil has a distinctly different taste than sweet basil (which is the more commonly used variety in North America). It's often stocked at regular grocers (near the fresh herbs), but if you have trouble tracking down, Asian grocers should be a sure bet.
-****Liquid aminos (eg. Bragg) has great umami flavor, which makes it a good vegetarian substitute for fish sauce. Brands such as Bragg can often be found in the natural foods aisle of your local grocer.