In Praise of the Tom Yum

by Ashish

I am a simple man. Give me good food, good drink, good books and pleasurable company, and I ask for nothing else in life. If you would be so good as to permit me a little avarice, perhaps you would allow me to express a wish for an extended case of laryngitis on all newscasters, especially Mr. Goswami, but that’s an optional thing, really. The first four items on my list will do me quite nicely, thank you.

If you asked me to pick one item for special affection from each of the four categories, I would be hard pressed for choice. Take drink, for example. There are many beers and single malts to choose from. There’s Old Monk and then there’s sol kadhi. I’d have a similar problem of plenty in each category, I’m afraid.

Except for one, where there is a clear, outright winner. If ever the time came when I’d have to stand blindfolded in front of a squad, I know for sure what I’d choose as my last meal. I’d ask for a bowl of Tom Yum soup, done to perfection.

For when it is done to perfection, the Tom Yum Soup is proof that atheists are nothing more than donkey orifices.

Galangal, kaffir lime, lemon grass stalks, shallots, birds eye chillies, mushrooms and prawns combine with fish sauce and a paste whose name eludes me right now to create an orchestra for the taste buds. An orchestra that is at once warm, spicy, comforting and exhilarating.

A well made Tom Yum soup is a dish that achieves the kind of balance that only tight-rope walkers can dream of. It is spicy, sour, and if you pay close attention, you can notice the faintest note of sweetness. The fish oil provides a hit of salt, which serves to raise all the other flavours  up a notch. If you choose to (and you should, really) make the soup with prawns, the prawns end up doing whatever it is that prawns do, and upon consumption of the bowl, you get the sort of feeling that Dhoni must have got after he hit that winning six in Mumbai. Top of the world, if you follow me.

As with all else in life, there must be a problem  with something so very good. And in this case, the problem is that a good bowl of Tom um soup is deucedly difficult to find.You’d be well advised to steer clear of the joints that claim to serve Chinese food and include Tom Yum Soup on their menus. These soups are to the real deal as Ram Gopal Verma Ki Aag was to, well, the real deal.

But even full fledged Thai restaurants, a breed rare in and of itself, don’t always cover themselves in glory in this department. Some will make it too spicy for comfort, while others won’t figure out quite when to stop pouring the oil. I have known chefs in these supposedly authentic restaurants add coconut milk to the recipe, which is a little like playing cricket with a basketball. It’s just plain wrong.

But when, after months and months of searching, you do come across that left handed oyster – a well made bowl of Tom Yum – you feel like that chap who did finally end up finding the Holy Grail. And in that blessed moment when your eyes notice the fact that all the ingredients are present, when your nostrils detect the faint aroma of lemon grass, and when your taste buds bid welcome to all the ingredients that repose within that bowl of simple, magical goodness – that is when nirvana is truly realized.

In Pune, the place that does the best rendition of Tom Yum is, in my opinion, Baan Tao, at the Hyatt. It used to be Ista earlier, of course, but thankfully the change in ownership has not resulted in a change in the taste. If you feel like treating your taste buds to a special thing, you’d be well advised to take them there tonight. The won’t regret it, I promise you. Your wallet might, but what the hell. It’s Tom Yum, after all.

Feel free to send in recommendations for what you think is the perfect bowl of Tom Yum, folks. It’s a topic I could research for years to come.