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Thai Curry or Thai Soup?

posted 30 Jun 2015, 22:13 by Happi Mess   [ updated 30 Jun 2015, 22:19 ]
Do You Know the Difference Between Thai Curry and Thai Soup?

Green Curry

Before I came to Thailand when I heard the word curry, I would always think of a creamy coconut milk based sauce filled with spices, a choice of meat, and maybe some herbs tossed in to make it look pretty.

Does this ring a bell?

Soup on the other hand, was a watery dish, typically not including too many spices, and filled with a combination of usually vegetables and some kind of meat.

I used to think a curry and soup were different by the spices they used and even the texture or thickness.

It wasn't until I came to Thailand and learned more about Thai food and the process of preparing Thai food, that I learned about the one fundamental difference.

To break down the difference between Thai curry and Thai soup, we have to begin with the two Thai words:

Gaeng (แกง) - Roughly translates to curry. Some examples:

  • Gaeng keow wan (sweet green curry แกงเขียวหวาน)
  • Gaeng massaman (massaman curry แกงมัสมั่น)

Tom (ต้ม pronounced more like dtome) - Tom does not just mean soup, but it really meansboil, and in English terms it refers to something that resembles a soup. Some examples:

  • Tom yum (tom yum ต้มยำ)
  • Tom saeb (sour Isaan soup ต้มแซ่บ)
  • Tom kha (coconut milk soup ต้มข่า)

So what's the difference between a gaeng and tom?


That's the answer.

In Thailand a curry always begins with a curry paste, which is a blend of herbs and spices (lemongrass, garlic, chilies, kaffir lime leaves, galangal etc.), all pounded into a buttery paste using a mortar and pestle. From there, it can be mixed with meats and vegetables and either with coconut milk or water to form the base.

It can be thick and rich or it can be watery.

Traditional Thai curries in fact don't contain coconut milk at all, they are water based curries. Coconut milk in curries came under influence of India (I'll share more about the history of curry later on).

Let's move on to tom:

A tom in Thai, which relates more to a soup definition, is a boiled dish where the flavor comes from aromatic herbs (lemongrass, garlic, chilies, kaffir lime leaves, galangal etc. - notice a similarity?) - but they are NOT pounded into a paste like a gaeng - but instead, just sliced and boiled to release aromatic flavors.

So after eating gaeng and tom for some time while living in Thailand, one day it finally dawned on me:

The difference between a curry and a soup does not have to do with the spice or ingredients (necessarily), but it has everything to do with the cooking process.

Geang Som

One of the easiest examples I can think of to explain the difference between a Thai curry and Thai soup, are two southern Thai dishes that I eat frequently at home: gaeng som (sour curry) and tom som (sour soup). 

By English definition we could probably describe them both as soup, because they are both watery. 

But in Thailand, even though they contain relatively the same ingredients, the cooking process is completely different.

Gaeng som (แกงส้ม pictured above)

The basic ingredients in gaeng som are turmeric, lemongrass, garlic, and chilies all pounded into a paste, then mixed with water, fish, choice of vegetable etc. 

Tom Som

Tom som (ต้มส้ม pictured above)

The basic ingredients in tom som are turmeric, lemongrass, garlic, and chilies all sliced, then mixed with water, fish, choice of vegetable etc.

The difference is either paste (gaeng) or no paste (tom).

Part of eating Thai food is learning about Thai food and the process of what goes into the cooking!

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    - Mark Wiens (มาร์ค วีนส์)


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