Tom yum is probably the most popular and famous Thai soup out there, and for good reason. The soup is served piping hot and the forward flavors are sour and spicy, thanks to generous squeezes of lime and strips of fiery Thai chiles. Upon second sip, tom yum is fragrant and surprisingly complex, due to the inclusion of lemongrass, makrut lime leaves, galangal (somewhat similar to ginger), and fish sauce. Tom yum can be made with shrimp, chicken, tofu, or no protein at all, and is typically served with straw mushrooms and sprinkles of cilantro. In Thai, “tom” translates into “boiled” and “yum” refers to the traditional sour, salty, and spicy flavor of an array of Thai dishes. There’s even an entire subcategory of Thai salads called yums.
Tom kha has a similar flavor profile to tom yum -- spicy, sour, and salty -- but is a lot creamier, thanks to the addition of coconut milk. It’s typically made with chicken and an array of mushrooms and is milder in heat compared to tom yum. As mentioned previously, tom refers to the boiling temperature of the soup whereas kha translates to “galangal,” the tropical rhizome that gives tom kha its unique flavor. Sip tom kha on its own or spoon the broth over bowls of jasmine rice.
Although gaeng jud legitimately translates to “plain soup,” this clear broth soup can be filled with hearty vegetables, white pepper, and glass noodles, and seems plain only compared to the vibrant flavors of tom yum. Gaeng jud is different wherever you order it; some versions have floating garlicky pork meatballs while others include sliced carrots and fuzzy Asian squash or soft squares of tofu. However it’s prepared, gaeng jud tastes light and comforting and is a welcomed opportunity to get in your daily dose of veggies.
Popular in Southern Thailand, gaeng som is a curry-based soup that is well known for its mouth-puckering sour qualities. The soup begins as a curry paste made with Thai chiles, shrimp pastes, and pounded shallot, and is then mixed with tamarind, which provides the soup with its signature sour flavor. Typically, gaeng som is loaded with produce native to Southern Thailand, but I’ve seen variations with cauliflower and green beans. The curry-like soup is usually served with fish and steamed white rice.
Gaeng liang kind of reminds me of gaeng jud in the sense that it is a brothy soup filled with vegetables. The main difference, however, boils down to flavor (pun kind of intended). Gaeng liang is filled with a funky fermented shrimp paste called kapi, as well as dried shrimp and fish sauce. Gaeng liang is a lot more on the savory side than any other flavor, but it also possesses the refreshing fragrance of Thai basil and jolts of heat from Thai chiles.
If you combine the warm broth of gaeng jud with loose grains of rice, you’ll basically get khao tom. Khao tom, which means boiled rice, is a soupier rice porridge that can have an array of proteins: flaky steamed white fish, ground pork, shredded chicken, and preserved eggs are all common variations. Khao tom is typically topped with cilantro and sliced green onions, fried garlic, and a dash of white pepper. It’s the perfect soup for when you want light flavor but still want to be satiated by the end of it.
Joke, sometimes written as “juk” or “jok,” is like khao tom’s cousin. More porridge than soup, joke consists of boiled-down rice filled with spicy slivers of ginger. Joke isn’t only a Thai thing; versions of this thick rice soup can be found throughout East Asia and Southeast Asia, but the pairings may be different across countries. In Thailand, it’s common to have joke served with bright cilantro leaves, white pepper, bouncy pork meatballs, fried shallots and garlic, and perhaps a soft poached egg. It’s a breakfast and sick day go-to in my home.