I absolutely love pumpkin, and when I realized that it features prominently in many Thai dishes, I got even more excited. It was a few years ago that I first tasted Thai pumpkin soup at JJ’s in Streetsville. It was one of those “so good but so bad” moments. The soup was thick, creamy, spicy and aromatic – that perfect combination of sweet, sour, salty and spicy. But I knew it was loaded with full-fat coconut milk – it was like eating a bowl of cream.
Over the years, I have experimented with different recipes for Thai pumpkin soup, making cuts here and there, and I have come up with a low-fat version that meets all of my criteria for taste – but doesn’t leave me feeling guilty. Unlike many of the versions you might find in a Thai restaurant, mine is blended. This allows me to make a big pot and freeze it for a warming work lunch later in the week or month. Although every recipe I’ve ever came across warns not to use ‘low fat’ coconut milk, I ignored their warnings and went ahead with my experiments, confirming my suspicion that a switch to reduced fat coconut milk would eliminate nothing other than fat.
This recipe does require a few Thai ingredients that you wont find in the Asian aisle at a supermarket like Loblaw. You will have to head to T&T, Oceans, or another Asian supermarket. But the good news is that Thai chilis, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves can all be frozen, so you’ll only need to go out once. (Just make sure to wash and package them in freezer-grade ziplock bags when you come home). Do not try to substitute any of these ingredients – they are essential components. I have seen people blogging about how they substituted lime juice for the lime leaves, or jalapenos for the Thai bird chilies. This is counterintuitive. Lime leaves have nothing to do with lime juice – so you can’t swap them. You’ll end up with a Mexican pumpkin soup instead (which, come to think of it, might not be too bad – but that’s not the point of making Thai pumpkin soup!) Fish sauce and shrimp paste are absolutely necessary, too, if you want that authentic Thai flavour.
Ingredients (serves 4-6)
4 cups good quality vegetable or chicken stock
2 shallots, sliced in rings
1 stalk of lemongrass, either minced or bruised (I hate finding tough chunks of lemongrass in my blended soup, so I usually cut the stalk in half and bruise it, pulling it out just before blending)
1 thumb sized piece of galangal, grated or thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic
2 Thai red chilies (seeds removed)
3 kaffir lime leaves, whole
1 butternut squash, peeled and chopped
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp coriander (ground)
2 tbsp fish sauce
1 tsp shrimp paste
1 tsp palm sugar, grated (or substitute brown sugar)
1 can reduced-fat coconut milk
1 lime, juiced
generous handful of Thai basil leaves, washed and stemmed
Bring the stock and the shallot, lemongrass, garlic, galangal, chilies and kaffir lime leaves to a boil. Once boiling, reduce to medium heat and add the chopped butternut squash. Simmer until squash is tender.
Add the dry spices one at a time, stirring in between, then add the fish sauce and shrimp paste. Allow to simmer for a few minutes. Remove the lime leaves (and the lemongrass if you used a whole, bruised stalk).
Stir in the coconut milk slowly. (Before pouring the coconut milk, you might consider reserving some of the thick cream – say, 3 tbsp – that has risen to the top of the milk. You can drizzle if over the soup later, as an attractive garnish. This would be pointless if you intend to freeze the soup or eat it at a later time).
At this point, if you intend to serve the soup fresh, you should blend the soup in batches, returning it to the pot to reheat. Just before serving it, add the lime juice to taste: begin with 1 tbsp and add up to 3 tbsp according to your personal taste. You may also have to adjust the fish sauce. The soup should have a perfect balance of sour and salty – with neither flavour overpowering the other. Chop the basil leaves and garnish each bowl of soup.
***If you plan on freezing the soup then I recommend adding the basil before blending. Return the soup to the pot and add lime juice, adjusting fish sauce as necessary.