Tom Yam Pla: The Spicy Thai Soup That Uses A Whole Fish

Thai cuisine has taken a greater share of the global spotlight in the last twenty years. According to The Splendid Table, that's no accident. In fact, it claims the Thai government has trained chefs to open and run Thai restaurants abroad since the early 2000s. This was done in an effort to spur more tourism to the Southeast Asian country, but its largest impact has been to spread high-quality Thai food far and wide.

Epicurean points out that one of the qualities that makes Thai cuisine unique is the delicate harmony of flavors that is present in many dishes. Sour, savory, sweet, and spicy all collide in every bite of good Thai food. Even in Thai salads and stir fries, these potent flavors are used to enhance and elevate each other.

For those that are unfamiliar with this daring dance of flavors, one of the best places to start is with tom yam pla. This complex soup is most often made with whole fish and exemplifies many of Thai cuisine's greatest characteristics.

Ingredients of tom yam pla

While there are many variations of tom yum soup, this fish-based version was one of the most popular in the country before the arrival of widespread tourism, per Frisco Yummy Thai. Spruce Eats reports that the flavors of tom yam pla are built around the whole fish that is used in its construction. It says that while any firm white fish filets will get the job done, including the head and tail of the fish adds an even more delectable flavor to the soup.

Those that might be averse to such a fish-forward dish can rest easy knowing that the many aromatics used in the soup temper the stronger notes. Spruce Eats says that lemongrass, galangal, and makrut lime leaves help to balance the savory fish and add bright citrusy sour-sweetness into the broth as well. For those that don't know, Kitchn reports that galangal is a root with a similar profile to ginger, though it is far more citrusy and piney, than overtly spicy.

World of Thai Food says that the spice in the dish instead comes from using both fresh and dried chili peppers. This can be omitted for those who are wary of serious spice, but it also helps balance out the many other elements of the broth.

How to make tom yam pla

Hot Thai Kitchen recommends starting this soup by making your own fish stock. Serious Eats likes to marinate the fish briefly in fish sauce before using the whole fish as the base of the stock. The aromatics are then added, and the mix of ingredients are left to simmer and mellow together completely while some of the liquid cooks off. Charred tomatoes and chili peppers are then added along with other ingredients that bring the soup together.

Hot Thai Kitchen points out that many of the aromatics are not meant to be consumed. It recommends reminding any guests to ignore them altogether or remove them from the broth. World of Thai Food solves this issue by bundling the aromatics together so that they can be easily scooped out of the cooking pot once their flavor has been infused. Finally, serve the soup with a side of white jasmine rice, or pour the soup over a mound of rice for a complete meal.

Tom yam variations

Tom yam pla is just one form of tom yam soup that can be enjoyed once the basic broth has been mastered. Serious Eats points out that the basic tom yam broth even comes in two varieties. The clear base is known as tom yam nam sai, while the creamy version is known as tom yam nam khon. Aroma Asian says that the creaminess of the latter broth comes courtesy of evaporated milk. Frisco Yummy Thai also reports that there is another creamy variety that uses coconut milk, and also a type that uses coconut flesh as well.

Many different types of meat can also be subbed in for fish in this recipe. Serious Eats says that tom yam with shrimp is another highly popular option. Frisco Yummy Thai adds that mixed seafood, chicken, and pork variations also exist. The key to all of these delicious soups is simply the balance of complex flavors that come from the many spices and aromatics infused into the basic stock. From there, it works well as a template for these many different varieties that can suit personal taste, and what's locally available.