VIENTIANE, Laos — The picky little guys on my tongue called tastebuds were singing Hallelujah in unison when they first soaked in the weird mixture of sour and spicy that came from a bowl served by a woman I had fondly called Mama Thai.
It was the summer of 2004 and I was a college sophomore finishing my last two PE classes at the University of the Philippines. My friends dragged me to a hole-in-the -wall type of restaurant along Katipunan Ave, just behind the campus, for lunch. The place was called UP Thai Canteen and it did not make a good impression. The place looked rather dodgy, the tables were small, and there were no proper chairs. Nevertheless, if the number of cars parked outside and the crowd that waited patiently for vacant seats were any indication, I would be in for one of the most delightful culinary surprises of my life. One taste of Mama Thai’s Tom Yum and Thailand skyrocketed to the top of my list of must-visit places like a boss.
Since then, I had returned to that place regularly until one day when they just closed down after being affected by a road-widening project. There were no signs whatsoever where they would be moving. It wasn’t the first time the UP Thai Canteen was displaced; some say they used to be inside the campus.
Years later, Mama Thai resurfaced again at a Thai restaurant called Khao Pad in the Ortigas Home Depot area. I accidentally found it while looking for a good dinner spot in that cluster of small restaurants. Khao Pad served the same bowl of Tom Yum that Mama Thai did at the UP Thai Canteen. It was the second coming of my favorite soup in the world and my tastebuds rejoiced! Every time I would crave for this recipe, I would indulge the pig in me and travel to Ortigas to have it. Nevermind that the serving was enough for three to four people and I was alone. Never mind that the only way to reach the restaurant was via an expensive taxi ride or a long walk from an MRT station. I was in love with that soup and I sipped and I slurped and I gulped like it was the last day I would have a bowl of this tom yum. And that day happened. One night, I just found Khao Pad closed, too. And again, I didn’t know where they moved if they did.
I took it personally. I really did.
Since then, every time I would see a Thai restaurant (that was within my budget range), I would look for Tom Yum in their menu and if there was, make no mistake I would have a bowl of it. I have tried a lot but none of them matched Mama Thai’s. There was one that came close to it, a bowl of another Southeast Asian soup called Vietnamese Sinigang offered at Fish Out of the Water at Greenbelt 5. Unfortunately, it was too pricey for me and I believe that restaurant closed down, too.
When I was planning my backpacking trip across mainland Southeast Asia, I promised myself that I would have tom yum as often as I could, hoping to find the best-tasting cheap bowl of wonder soup. Here are some of what I had tried.
I’m actually having a Tom Yum withdrawal syndrome right now especially that I’m writing about it. I would love to prepare this soup often but it’s not very easy to find ingredients here. I guess I’m gonna have to pay my favorite Thai restaurant a visit.
I will be backpacking across the Southeast Asian peninsula again in January. Something tells me that my search for the best-tasting cheap tom yum will have a Round 2.