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 flavors 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

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