Woe to the hapless tourist who orders Malaysian tom yam hoping for a taste of our neighbor to the north. All tom yam are not created equal.
Its name alone tells us that Malaysian tom yam is most certainly a local take on the Thai classic, a clearish soup scented with lemongrass and lime leaves, soured with lime juice, and spiked with fresh chilies (in fact, this is just one of a number of Thai regional variations on the tom yam theme).
After migrating south Thai tom yam took on the visual characteristics of a Malaysian assam (sour) curry, thickening a wee bit with the help of pounded chile paste and turning a vivid orange-red. Tamarind nudged out lime juice as its souring agent and dried chilies were thrown into the mix.
Both Malaysian and Thai tom yam can be described as 'hot' and 'sour'. And they have something else in common: there are as many permutations as there are tom yam cooks.
This Section 17 vendor serves a tom yam meal-in-a-bowl bulked up with noodles and crowded with vegetables. He makes each order on the spot, softening round cabbage, lady's fingers (okra), and mammoth tomato wedges in a long-simmered tom yam broth, and spooning the soup over a choice of kuey teow (wide rice noodles), beehoon (thin rice noodles), or round yellow mee.
Diners will also find, hidden amongst the crisp-tender veggies, pieces of pork and chunks of broth-absorbent fried tofu. Already lip-puckeringly sour and pleasingly spicy, the dish can be made more so with the help of that ubiquitous Malaysian noodle accompaniment, sambal and half a kalamansi. A bowlful brought tears to our eyes, a drip to our nose, and sweat to our brow - all good indicators of the worthiness of any bowl of hot and sour.
Then there's Malay Malaysian tom yam, a noodleless soup heavy on the seafood. But that's another post...
Tom yam stall, Kedai Kopi Wah Cheong, Jalan 17/29, Section 17, Petaling Jaya. Early morning -230 or 300pm. Closed Tuesday.