I FELT LIKE MY MOUTH HAS TAKEN A BEACH VACATION DOWN IN THE SOUTHEAST, THAT I COULD HEAR THE SOUND OF TURQUOISE WATER MASSAGING MY TASTE-BUDS
Something is happening here, and if you had any loved ones residing in Beijing, you may have felt this. Perhaps from the shaken jitters that come through their voices, perhaps even traceable within their text messages… the emotions, raw and rampant, running uncontainably even from the choices of their emojis on Instagram. Because over here, since about 3 days ago, something big is happening. The most freakish… unfathomable… borderline-scary natural phenomenon is rioting through the very air we breath, and the very reality we see, and frankly, it’s freaking everybody out here. Emerging from the darkness, the elderly are moving cautiously and slowly out of the shadows of their dwellings, looking up, teary in disbelief. The children, curious and enthusiastic, holding their hands out into the rare glistens and ask, Mommy, what is this?
What it is, is that for the past 3 consecutive days, the historically soupy and oppressively smoggy sky of Beijing, has been, impossibly blue.
I’m not talking about the-government-patting-themselves-on-the-back or the this-should-be-harmless-enough-to-leave-my-house-without-my-gas-mask kind of greyish relative blue. I’m talking about… the Swissland-kind of blue, the 3D clouds-kind of blue, the mystical, unicorn-kind of blue that the Chinese has only seen or heard in movies or from the tales of strange, faraway travellers. And maybe, it’s no big deal to you, but in Beijing, it’s nothing short of a miracle, like Moses parting the Red Sea and finding a 20 dollar-bill on the sea-floor while crossing. Which is, literally, impossible. As pathetic and outrageously sad this may sound, in a day like this, we almost owe it to ourselves to go outside and do something as mundanely rare as… having a fucking picnic.
And if that wasn’t pathetic and sad enough to hear, let me just tell you something else, that I actually made and photographed this soup – possibly the best soup I’ve ever made period – all the way back on Thursday. The summer version of Thailand’s spicy and sour tom yum goong soup that will smack all your dulled senses wide awake with its distinctive lemony herbs, spiciness and tartness of red chilis and tomatoes, the emboldened depth from blended and drizzled shrimp oil, and the creaminess of coconut milk. It was so good, that I felt like my mouth has taken a beach vacation down in the Southeast, that I could almost hear the sound of turquoise waves massaging my taste-buds, that I almost couldn’t wait another minute to tell you all about it. But I stopped myself. I stopped myself because I wanted to make it again for this picnic, to photograph it under all that impossible sun lights, to bath in it again on this pleasure that comes as rare as a golden panda that speaks English. Because did I mention…
It’s that kind of blue.
Inspired by Tara O'Brady's Seven Spoons Cookbook
- 16~17 oz (450~500 grams) medium head/shell-on shrimps
- 2/3 cup (145 grams) olive oil
- 1 tbsp chili flakes
- 1 small handful of fresh mint leaves, torn into small pcs
- 4~5 kaffir lime leaves, torn into small pcs
- 1/2 tsp Thai shrimp paste, or 2 tsp fish sauce
- 1/4 cup (60 grams) water
- 3/4 cup (165 grams) coconut milk, plus more to drizzle
- 2 cans (800 grams) peeled whole tomatoes
- 5~6 (135 grams) white parts of the lemongrass stalks, cut into small chunks
- 1 1/2" (40 grams) galangal, cut into small chunks
- 10~11 (4 grams) kaffir lime leaves, torn into small pcs
- 3 small red chillis, diced
- 1 tbsp (15 grams) + 2 (30 grams) tbsp fish sauce, plus more to adjust
- 1/4 cup (60 grams) lime juice
- 4 small Asian shallots, peeled and cut into chunks
- 1 1/4 tsp light brown sugar
- 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- TO MAKE SHRIMP OIL: Peel the shrimps and set aside the meats. Use a scissor to cut the heads and shells into as small of a pieces as you can, then combine with olive oil, chili flakes, fresh mint leaves, kaffir lime leaves and shrimp paste in a pot. Set over medium heat, breaking up the shrimp paste with a wooden spoon and cook for 9~10 min until the shells are almost browned, and that there are browned bits forming on the sides/bottom of the pot. Add the water, scraping down the browned bits as thoroughly as you can so they can melt into the water, and cook for another 2 min to reduce. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve, pressing down the solids to extract as much liquid as you can, then discard the solid. Set the shrimp oil aside.
- Devein the shrimps and slice them in half length-wise. Add 1 tbsp of shrimp oil to a skillet, then cook the shrimps over medium heat just until they turn opaque. Season with salt and pepper, then set aside in the fridge.
- TO MAKE THE GAZPACHO: In a blender, combine coconut milk, 1/2 can (200 grams) of peeled tomato (reserve the rest), lemongrass stalks, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, red chilis and 1 tbsp of fish sauce. Blend for 2~3 min until the mixture is completely obliterated. Strain the mixture through a very fine sieve or cheese clothe. If you're using a fine sieve, press on the solids until they feel relatively dry, then squeeze with your hands in small batches to extract as much liquid out as possible (you'd be surprise how much more liquid you can get). If you're using cheese clothe, just squeeze on the entire thing all together. You should be able to get about 1 1/2 cup of liquid.
- Rinse the blender but no need to wash. Add the extracted liquid back to the blender, along with the remaining 1 1/2 can (600 grams) peeled tomatoes, lime juice, small Asian shallots, 2 tbsp of fish sauce, light brown sugar and freshly ground black pepper. Run the blender for 1~2 min until smoothly pureed, *then drizzle in 1/4 cup of shrimp oil while running. Adjust the seasoning with more fish sauce if needed, then chill in the fridge for at least 2 hours to overnight (this is also important for the flavours to weld together). Blend it again briefly or whisk vigorously before serving.
- Serve with a generously dousing of more shrimp oil and coconut milk, torn fresh mint leaves, freshly ground black pepper, and the cooked/chilled shrimps.