I feel I should explain why I, an Eastern European immigrant living in the U.S., am trying to lure Texans to try my Asian food cooking classes. Like many Westerners, I have been in the shoes of someone who had little tolerance of any hot and spicy food. When I came to the U.S. 15 years ago, I jealously observed those who could eat Thai (as well as Indian, Malaysian, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Mexican etc.) food and really enjoy it. I liked the aromas – so complex and promising! But my palate felt only the overwhelming heat.

Over the past 10 years I traveled, ate the best American and original versions of Asian foods, expanded my knowledge of oriental ingredients, studied printed and online materials, practiced in my kitchen, and trained my palate. I realized that while the Asian food liberally uses chili peppers, heat is not the main character of a well-cooked Asian dish. It is possible to enjoy all the exotic flavors with the heat adjusted to your personal tolerable level. Start from here and soon you’ll see the magic of chilies, how they wake up your taste buds and make the same flavor combinations sounder. Step by step, your culinary world will expand to a new horizons. Just make the first step and learn basics. That’s where I can help you.

In my work I follow a principle I learned during my art training: before one can change and mold something to represent their own views and ideas, one must first learn to understand and recreate a realistic representation of that object. For this reason let us first explore the origins of two traditional Thai soups.

SheSimmers.com: Tom Yam 101 Part One – The Old-Fashioned Tom Yam (ต้มยำ)

Leela illustrates her story with an oxtail based version of Tom Yam and laughs that an old-fashioned Tom Yam’s “appearance will make you gasp in horror and cover your children’s eyes.” Originally, this soup is based on a good beef or pork stock made from meaty bones – similar to any other soup from European cuisines. To turn this sweet concoction into a Thai soup we use fragrant galangal, lemongrass, and kaffir lime leaf, sour lime juice, salty fish sauce, and some hot Thai bird’s eye chilies to brighten the flavors. Leela says that the use of Thai sweet chili paste, Nam Prik Pao, is optional, but I insist on adding it. In my opinion it brings depth and complexity to the soup when you want to modify it into a seafood or vegan version. (See the list of selected styles.)

SheSimmers.com: Tom Yam Kung/Goong (ต้มยำกุ้ง)

Tom Yam Kung (prawns or seafood combo) and Tom Yam Gai (chicken) are the most popular variations of this soup outside of Thailand. It is no wonder that they are. They are made with fresh readily-available ingredients, they are easy to make, and they are beautiful, low-calorie soups. Start with a seafood or chicken stock. Add the previously described aromatics to infuse your cooking liquid. It takes a few minutes to cook assorted seafood or bite-size cuts of chicken breast in it. Finally, mix in some Nam Prik Pao, season, sprinkle with fresh cilantro leaves, and it is ready to serve — 15 minutes max for the whole process.

Thai cuisine is a natural choice for pescatarians (vegetarians, who include seafood in their diet). Vegans can use recipes where the shrimp paste and fish sauce are substituted with plant-based ingredients. The best way to substitute is to make your own Thai chili and curry pastes, stir-fry sauces, and salad dressings. I have included the best and well-tested recipes for these vegan Thai food building blocks included in my workshops. Once you make your own V-Nam Prik Pao, it’s only a matter of minutes to cook your vegetarian Tom Yam.

Vegetarian Not-so-Hot & Sour Tom Yam

Prep Time15 mins
Cook Time25 mins
Total Time1 hr 10 mins
Course: Soup
Cuisine: Thai
Keyword: lycooking, lyukum cooking lab, pumpkin, recipe, soup, Thai, vegetables
Servings: 2 portions


for soup

  • 2 cups water or vegetable stock
  • 5 oz squash or mixed vegetables
  • 1 kaffir lime leaf
  • 1 stack lemongrass
  • 4 slices galangal fresh
  • 2 oz mushrooms canned straw or fresh breech
  • 2 tsp lemon juice
  • 1 tsp brown sugar palm
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 Thai red chili pepper
  • 1/4 cup cilantro fresh
  • 1 tbsp coconut cream
  • 1 tbsp nam prik pao vegetarian

for vegetarian nam prik pao

  • 2 tbsp avocado oil
  • 1 tbsp sesame oil
  • 70 g shallot
  • 25 g garlic
  • 50 g Fresno chili peppers
  • 2 tbsp cashew nuts
  • 1 tbsp red miso
  • 1 tsp brown sugar palm
  • 2 tsp key lime juice
  • 1.5 tbsp light soy sause
  • 1.5 tbsp dark soy sause
  • 1 tbsp sriracha or add more to your taste

for rice

  • 1/2 cup long-grain rice
  • 3/4 cup water cold


for vegetarian nam prik pao

  • In a wok, fry onion, chilies, and garlic in hot oil until dark golden brown.
  • Separately, using mortar and pestle, crush cashew nuts and mix with sugar, lime juice, miso, and two types of soy sauces. Add fried shallot, garlic, and chilies into the mortar and mix thoroughly. Balance the heat with sriracha.
    Vegetarian Nam Prik Pao

for rice

  • Soak rice in cold water for 30 minutes.
  • Strain soaked rice. Add fresh cold water and bring to a boil. Stir, reduce the heat to minimum, cover, and cook for 15 min. Turn off the heat and keep covered (for steaming) for another 15 min.

for soup

  • In a medium saucepan, bring water to a gentle boil over medium heat. Smash the lower part of the lemongrass stalk, slice galangal, remove the stem and cut kaffir lime leaf. Add them to the simmering water to infuse it with their flavors.
  • Peel and cut the squash to bite-size pieces, remove the roots and wash breech mushrooms. Add vegetables to the liquid.
  • Stir in nam prik pao. Use the vegetarian recipe above for a strictly vegetarian diet. Season the soup with salt, lime juice, and chilies. Balance the taste.
  • Stir in the cilantro leaves and serve the soup piping hot with rice.

Vegetarian Tom Yam