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Thailand: The tom yum test

How do you like yours? With river prawns? Pork spine? Bony mackerel? A quest to find Bangkok’s best tom yum soup opens up a world of flavour

Thailand: The tom yum test

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It’s 10am. While Bangkok’s backpackers are sleeping off the effects of drinking booze from buckets on Khao San Road, a few streets away at a roadside stall a queue is quietly forming. Customers sit patiently at stainless steel tables shaded from the sun under scraps of green tarpaulin: a smartly dressed grandma, a ruby-lipped policewoman, a young couple sporting matching floppy hair and John Lennon sunglasses.

We pull up a plastic pew and join them in waiting for the one and only dish on the menu at Tom Yum Goong Banglamphu — tom yum goong. A tart broth spiked with lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, chilli and a splash of fish sauce, it’s the grand mammy of all Thai soups.

Up and down the country, every home has its own version, with all manner of ingredients thrown into the mix — everything from tender pork spine to bony mackerel and foreigner-friendly chicken. The classic version, however, will contain prawns — the bigger and fatter the better.

“They only use river prawns from Ayutthaya here,” my guide, Khun Soon, tells me. “Because these prawns have very big heads and more tasty brains. More prawn flavour.” Oh. If there’s one thing guaranteed to put a Brit off their breakfast it’s the mention of brains.

Eventually, our 150 baht (£3.50) bowl of cerebrally endowed crustaceans arrives and the memory of our 30-minute wait disappears in haze of soupy deliciousness. The tastes are clean, aromatic: a big slurp of lemongrass and lime chased by a satisfying hit of chilli and the crunch of baby coconut shoots. Then comes the prawn — sweet, fleshy, as fresh as a summer’s day. The head or brain is less horrifying than it sounds — little meaty balls with an intense prawn flavour, just as Khun Soon had promised. It’s hands down the best tom yum I’ve eaten in my four years of travelling in Thailand. After this, there seems little point in going elsewhere.

Sor Naa Wang

However, the delightful Khun Soon — a culinary school graduate with 12 years of guiding with Urban Adventures under her belt — is determined to make me think again. A 10-minute walk takes us past stalls a-flutter with fisherman pants, fruit stands laden with jumbo mangos and cannonball-sized durian, and a burnt-out shopping mall. Khun Soon points out the roofless, blackened building to me, saying, “The first time it rained after the fire, the basement level flooded. Then some local boys came and put in some carp — and now the fish swim around in there!” Bangkok never fails to surprise.

Eventually, we arrive at our destination, Bua Ki Restaurant. Housed in a pretty, shutter-fronted shophouse on tree-lined Phra Sumen Road, this Chinese-Thai restaurant has been around for over 70 years. The decor appears to have changed little in that time — tiled floors, swirling fans, porcelain Fu, Lu and Shou gods standing sentry above the kitchen door. Having beaten the lunchtime rush, we slide into a glossy teak booth and order number 21: wonton shrimp soup hotspicy [sic] for 70 bhat (£1.50). Five minutes later, our dish arrives and I’m transported. The soup is redder, thicker, richer than the last. The flavours and textures come in cascades: crisp bursts of spring onion, snappy choi sum (a leafy vegetable), crunchy peanuts, pungent galangal, juicy minced pork balls; plus every chubby prawn is wrapped in a silky wonton casing, adding a delightful dose of gooeyness. If I had to choose a desert island dish, this might well be it. I tell Khun Soon I’ve changed my mind. This is the best tom yum I’ve ever tasted.

But it turns out there’s another contender for the top prize. This time it’s over on Dinso Road, a tuk-tuk-choked thoroughfare near Bangkok City Hall, known (mainly to Thais) for its glut of excellent restaurants. It’s not exactly on the tourist trail but you can team lunch with a visit to Wat Benchamabophit, otherwise known as the Marble Temple, an extraordinarily OTT temple, even by Thai standards; hewn from eye-wateringly white Carrara marble and encrusted with gilt and coloured glass. Back on the food trail, fiery woks and pots as big as wheelie bins sizzle and steam in Sor Naa Wang’s shopfront, tempting us through the door in a swirl of piquant aromas.

Wat Benchamabophit

Inside, it’s an austere little eatery — blue checkered floor; sterile, tiled walls, a Buddhist-Hindu shrine to Shakti glowing in the corner — but the crowds aren’t here for the interior design (in the middle of the day, the queue stretches down the street), they’re here for the tom yum. Sor Naa Wang’s version of the dish is a tom yum talay, a prawn and seafood medley steeped in a Carnation milk-based broth. Khun Soon suggests we order some sweet longanberry iced-tea to accompany. We gulp down the sugary liquid and munch on the lychee-like berries as we watch our unflappable chef transform stalks of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and bouquets of coriander into something bordering on magical. The result — costing 200 baht (£5) — is bewitching; lemony creaminess gives way to glassy circlets of squid, buttery prawns and pert little mushrooms, followed by a swift kick of chilli and galangal in the back of the throat. For fleeting moments there are hints of fragrant sawtooth coriander and wafts of garlic and shallot. It’s enough to make me want to bang both hands on the table and recreate ‘that scene’ from the movie When Harry Met Sally...     

So next time youre in the City of Angels, which of these restaurants should you choose? All of them. Its a three-way tie. Impossible to decide. Each and every one of these dishes is worth spending 12-hours in economy for. Book your flight now.

Essentials

Intrepid Travel has a seven-night Real Food Adventure tour, covering Bangkok, Ayutthaya and Chiang Mai from £725, including select meals, homestay accommodation and overnight train travel, but excluding international flights. Urban Adventure’s Bangkok Off-Grid Food Tour is a private tour of the Bang Lamphu and Ban Phan Thom neighbourhoods, including all food for £92 per person. intrepridtravel.com  urbanadventure.com

Read more of Southeast Asia’s culinary tales from our cover story.

Published in the October 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)