Tom Yum Goong, Thainess, and the culinary history of a national staple

This past Tuesday, the cabinet gave the green light for the Ministry of Culture to move forward with proposing “tom yum goong” as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) recognized dish, according to the Minister of Culture Ittiphol Khunpluem.

The Ministry of Culture views the soup as an important part of Thai heritage because it represents the agricultural communities in Central Thailand, reflecting the uncomplicated dietary culture that has remained constant over time. As UNESCO recognizes culinary traditions as an element of Intangible Cultural Heritage, it is not simply the dish but also its methods of preparation that are being nominated by the Ministry.

It comes as little surprise that “tom yum goong” is being proposed as a dish of significant cultural value; the soup has long been enjoyed domestically and internationally. Such a popular dish has gained a reputation for being a culinary staple, becoming associated with – and now, potentially representing – the country.

And after all, who can forget the iconic nickname of the 1997 Asian financial crisis?

But as Thailand lays claims of national heritage, what really comes into question is the history of the dish. 

“Tom yum goong” is ancient – a soup that is widely known, but not well documented. Given Thailand’s oral traditions, it makes sense that such a favoured dish would simply be passed down by word of mouth, constantly made and remade before the time of written recipes.

It’s generally believed that the abundance of freshwater shrimp in the Chao Phraya River gave rise to the dish, causing many to use it as a central component in their soups. As a result, “tom yum goong” is thought to have originated in Central Thailand. 

However, the first written record of a tom yum recipe, which dates from 1888, is titled “snakehead fish tom yum” (ต้มยำปลาช่อน). The first mention of shrimp in a “tom yum” soup is found in a “food dictionary” from 1897, written by an American missionary, in a recipe titled “tom yum goong with additional garnish” (ต้มยำกุ้งทรงเครื่อง).  

Though the spicy and sour flavours still lie at the core of the soup, not much else is similar. Neither recipe resembles what “tom yum goong” looks like today: the former makes use of shredded green mango and pickled garlic brine, and the latter uses the madan fruit instead of limes to achieve the sour taste. 

The three essential ingredients – lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and galangal – to “tom yum” soup as we know it were likely added in as the soup evolved over time, changing ingredients while maintaining its iconic, enjoyable flavours. 

It’s worth noting too how much “tom yum” recipes have actually changed in modern times, with the recent addition of coconut milk to make “creamy tom yum” or “tom yum nam khon” (ต้มยำน้ำข้น), blurring the lines between “tom yum” and “tom kha” soup.

Professional archaeologist, hobbyist gastronome, and columnist Krit Luealamai (กฤช เหลือลมัย) has previously written about how these older “tom yum goong” recipes liken more to Cambodian-style “tom yum,” as documented in a recipe book from 1907.

It’s self-evident that “tom yum goong” is a popular variant of “tom yum” soup that’s been deeply embedded in Thai culinary history. But a clearwater, hot and sour soup has long been enjoyed in East and Southeast Asia. 

Not to mention, ingredients can be found anywhere in the region: lemongrass is native to the South Asian region, galangal to China, and kaffir limes to Indonesia. Who’s to say that the very first bowl of hot and sour soup with shrimp in it was definitely made in Central Thailand?

It goes without saying that every country has developed a soup unique to local ingredients to constitute a “national cuisine,” but as we move forward with efforts to “protect” elements of modern culture as “heritage,” it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on what that word really means. 

How do the constraints of how we conceive the world today, as separate but interrelated nation states, affect how we perceive our past? How do histories of fluidity, mobility, and cultural (in this case specifically, culinary) exchange counter that? 

Photo Credit: Unilever

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