The secret to this sweet and creamy seafood ‘tom yam’? (Shhh… it's ‘gula Melaka’!)

KUALA LUMPUR, June 18 — I’d be the last person to claim authenticity in my cooking.

From pantry decluttering fried rice using Thai riceberry to a superfood salad of avocados, blueberries, Japanese natto and Korean kimchi, anything and everything goes in my kitchen.

So long as it’s tasty, that is.

Sometimes it’s our cravings that inspire us; that is certainly what spurred on my latest Weekend Kitchen adventure.

Recently back from Bangkok, I have been hankering for some hot, sour and spicy tom yam. But not the usual sort.

For one, rather than the typical tom yam goong made with prawns, this would be closer to tom yam talay as it features a variety of seafood. (Talay means “the sea” in Thai.)

Frozen or fresh, any type of seafood would work in a 'tom kha talay.'

Frozen or fresh, any type of seafood would work in a ‘tom kha talay.’

Also, the bowl of tom yam I like best isn’t strictly tom yam which is a clear soup but rather tom kha, a creamier broth thanks to the inclusion of coconut milk. Make this a tom kha talay if one is to be precise.

More ingredients, then. More flavours too. Sometimes more is more.

So what’s the secret to this sweet and creamy seafood tom yam? Given that I have given away the surprise in the headline itself, you already know it’s a spoonful of gula Melaka – but why?

As ever, sometimes necessity is the mother of invention. I just didn’t have any sugar in the pantry, having run out and never bothered to restock it (something about a cleaner diet but we all know how that usually goes…)

What I did have lying around was a sizable block of gula Melaka; courtesy of my last trip back to my hometown.

Indispensable herbs and spices for a 'tom yam' include limes, lemongrass and chillies.

Indispensable herbs and spices for a ‘tom yam’ include limes, lemongrass and chillies.

Waste not, want not, I always say – especially when the swap could produce interesting results.

For there can be a mysterious magic to cooking, when you play with your ingredients.

Even substituting a single item for another can lead to a subtle yet memorable change in taste or texture. Call this the kitchen alchemy, if you will.

What I detect is a bustling back alley soi of Bangkok, where the vendors stir up a storm on their woks, and the gentler music of my childhood, of Peranakan relatives making kuih-muih with the fragrant gula Melaka.

This is a bowl of tom yam (tom kha, to be more accurate) that sings of the sea and the city, and of the days of growing up. You can’t get any sweeter than that, surely.

Sweet and creamy with fresh 'santan' (left) and 'gula Melaka' (right).

Sweet and creamy with fresh ‘santan’ (left) and ‘gula Melaka’ (right).


Besides the gula Melaka, another crucial ingredient is the coconut milk since it’s a proper tom kha.

This is where getting the fresh stuff makes a big difference. Fresh santan tastes richer without feeling cloggy, texture wise, and the resulting soup will be smoother too.

Other requisite fresh ingredients include limes and cilantro. Fresh seafood is lovely though I’ve been known to use frozen seafood in a pinch.

If you’re not into squid or fish, you could make this a tom kha goong and only use prawns (or goong in Thai).

From larger tiger prawns with heads and tails intact to frozen, shelled shrimp: they all work.

Just add these closer to the end of the cooking time to prevent them from becoming tough and rubbery.

I make this an entire meal by itself – a one-pot dish – by adding some noodles, typically shirataki noodles.

These translucent and gelatinous Japanese noodles are made from konjac yam, and are a zero or low calorie way to bulk up the spicy Thai soup.

One, therefore, might consider this a Thai meets Japanese meets Malaccan fusion dish. I just call it delicious!


350ml coconut milk

200 ml chicken stock

2 kaffir lime leaves, roughly torn

Small piece (about 4 cm) of galangal, crushed

2 stalks lemongrass, sliced diagonally

1 tablespoon of crushed gula Melaka

1 tablespoon fish sauce

80g of assorted mushrooms

300g fresh/frozen/mixed seafood

3-4 cili padi

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

200g shirataki noodles, cooked

Fresh cilantro leaves, for garnishing

Shelled shrimp for a 'tom kha goong' (left). Fresh cilantro leaves (right).

Shelled shrimp for a ‘tom kha goong’ (left). Fresh cilantro leaves (right).


Add the coconut milk and chicken stock into a pot and bring to a boil. Once the broth has come to a boil, add the kaffir lime leaves, galangal and lemongrass. Bring to a boil once more.

When the broth has come to a second boil, reduce to a simmer and add the gula Melaka and fish sauce. Stir until the gula Melaka has dissolved completely.

Next add the mushrooms and simmer for another five minutes. Add the seafood last, so that they don’t end up overcooked.

Finally, add the cili padi and fresh lime juice. Adjust the seasoning to taste, using more lime juice, fish sauce or gula Melaka if necessary.

Spoon the seafood soup into bowls already filled with portions of cooked shirataki noodles. Garnish with cilantro leaves and serve immediately.

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