Lisa's Notebook

Writing Exercises by Lisa McNulty.

Tom Yum-ish Soup

We bought way too much food for my daughter’s birthday. We ended up surrounded by a dangerous amount of leftover sandwiches and cake. Then after she was asleep, I had a watch party with friends. The sensible thing would have been to gather a sort of picnic dinner. It was, however, the last thing I wanted. I was craving vegetables, I was craving spice, and if I was going to have anything like that, I needed to make it in a short enough time that I wouldn’t miss much of the watch party.

So naturally I made rice and tom yum soup. Here’s my recipe:

Put on some rice in the rice cooker. The next day, when you make it again, figure out that it’s way better to soak rice noodles instead. Better portion control and faster. Also noodles are delicious. Put them in a bowl and pour the hot water over them to do its work. Three minutes later, forget to drain them. It’s fine, whatever the packet says. When you do drain them, leave the sieve over the bowl and hear the drips every now and then as you get on with the rest.

Slice a chicken thigh into bite sized pieces. When you make it the second time, take some frozen prawns and leave them to soak for a few minutes to defrost them.

Spoon out tom yum paste from a jar. Put it in a pan and add water. Taste it. Measure out a spoon of fish sauce, as though this was a precise process. Cut a lime in half and squeeze in the juice. Taste it again. If you are doing chicken, add it at this point and let it cook for three minutes. Maybe go and make a comment or two on the show you are supposed to be watching on your WhatsApp group. It’s ok, it’s on in the background and you already know the plot. The room smells of chilli now and this is important.

Slice a tomato. Cut it into half, put one half into the fridge, and slice the other into four half-moon pieces. Take a miniature yellow pepper and cut into strips. There should be mushrooms in this. You don’t have any. Buy some for when you make it again. When you do, halve them, then turn them ninety degrees and cut them in the other direction, twice,so you have six chunks of mushroom. Do this with two large mushrooms. It looks like a much bigger pile than the other vegetables. They cook down. It’s fine.

Add the vegetables and cook for a couple of minutes more.

Taste the broth again. Take a can of coconut milk and add slightly, but only slightly, too much. Stir and watch the colour change, going from clear deep orange to something creamier and paler. Taste the broth again.

If there are prawns, add them now. There might be a bit of draining water from the soaking. Let it stay. It will infuse the broth with prawnness. It belongs there.

Take a handful of spinach that already seems like too much spinach. Stir it until it wilts. Add quite a bit more.

If you’ve cooked rice, spoon that into one side of a bowl. Then ladle the soup in the other, letting the broth soak into the rice and gradually suffuse it with colour as you eat. Spoon a little rice onto your spoon, then dip into the broth and eat them in a single bite.

Or, if you’ve made rice noodles, separate out a sensible portion with your hands, stretching them tall as you lift them out of the sieve and place them in the bottom of the bowl. Ladle the soup over the top. You’ve made way too much for one bowl. That’s ok. You’ll have another.

Take the bowl (a tall bowl), a spoon (one of the nice spoons) and a fork if you are having noodles. Take a spoonful. The chilli will hit you first, wake up your tongue, clear your sinuses, before the coconut milk smoothes it all out.

There you go. That’s better.


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