I think I have become kind of a penny pincher. It is weird because I’m not a penny pincher about EVERYTHING. I buy quality clothing and shoes but draw the line at super fancy purse. I do get my hair cut and colored professionally but I go to a home salon to get it done. And usually with food, I’m all in for a fancy cup of coffee or a platter of sushi but I will lose my mind over a high-priced cup of soup.
Soup you say? Yes….soup. When I look at a price in a restaurant, I start to calculate what it would cost for me to make at home. I do take in mind that a restaurant needs to make a profit and pay the employees. (And yes, there is a lot more than that like paying for the actual building, insurances and advertising etc.)
I just think there are some things that there is a lot more profit than effort. Soft drinks are the first thing to come to mind. (I personally don’t order them when I’m out because paying $3-$5 for a glass of coke is nuts….and yes…I sound like an old person…but I am an old person…so I’m good with that.) Wine on the other hand should have a markup because of the research that goes into buying a good bottle and the fact that a restaurant has to pay for a license to serve alcohol.
Most restaurant soup is made in large batches and not cooked to order so for the restaurant, I would guess it is a good profit maker. (I’m taking into consideration there are some high-end soups like a good lobster bisque or French Onion with aged gruyere cheese that may have higher costs to them.)
I went to lunch the other day at a local Asian Fusion restaurant. I was VERY excited to see Tom Yum soup on the menu. (Tom Yum is a Thai soup that is VERY fragrant, a little spicy and generally served with mushrooms and chicken or shrimp.) All the other cups of soup were under $2 but the Tom Yum was about $8. That must be wrong…$8 for a cup of soup!? It must be a BOWL of soup. A bowl of soup is worth $8 but a cup…not so much. (I’m wishing I was on a park bench feeding birds while I have this discussion.)
I ordered the soup because I wanted it. It arrived. In my head, I heard the sound effects when someone overbids on The Price is Right. (Old people like Price is Right…so do young ones but they don’t admit it.) This was no bowl of soup….it is a cup….it was a pretty cup…but it was a CUP!!!
What the heck?! A CUP!? $8 A CUP?! In Northwest Indiana??!!
I ate the soup…it was good…but was it $8 good…maybe….it depends….if I could recreate it at home (for less)…I’d probably never order it out again….but let’s say I can’t….is it worth $8 for soup if it is a lot of work….once again maybe. (This is where when you get older you sit and have conversations in your head about important topics…like soup.)
I did something I have never done before, I contacted the restaurant (privately) and asked why their soup was so much. Their claim was that they make one cup at a time. Hmmm, is that true? There are some soups that CAN be made in single servings but the amount of work to do that from scratch is a bit crazy if you ask me. (Am I the soup equivalent of a Crazy Cat Lady? Am I the Crazy Soup Lady?)
The restaurant also made a claim that it was “VERY COSTLY” given the rare ingredients and that we live far from “Thai civilization”….their words not mine. If it were 1862 (random date pulled from the air), I would have bought that logic but it is 2019 and “rare” ingredients are readily at our fingertips with specialty markets and the Internet. This is the statement that put me on the quest to make my own Tom Yum.
Tom Yum can be made one cup at a time because they sell a Tom Yum paste that cuts out the factor that you need to make a very time consuming paste. The paste is called nam prik pao and it consists of Thai chiles, shallots and garlic that are wood grilled. A lot of commercial pastes also includegalangal, and kaffir lime leaves so essentially the paste takes a lot of work out of it….and I just happened to have a jar in my pantry. (I’m not kidding, I saw it in the grocery the other day and thought what the heck.)
The other ingredients that I think are essential are lemongrass and fish sauce. Our produce department carries lemongrass but you can also find it in a jar and tube locally so that isn’t too exotic either. Fish sauce is in a bottle near soy sauces. It gives the soup a great salty funk but if you are “fish” sensitive or scared of new things…you can probably omit. (Plus in my nam prik pao paste ingredients…fish sauce is already listed.)
Everything else in the soup was pretty basic…chicken, mushrooms, lime juice and maybe a little brown sugar if you need to take control of some of the heat. (I added some bok choy, red pepper and green onion for no other reason than I was chopping veggies for dinner so I grabbed them to add some extra vitamins to the bowl.)
The big caution here is be cautious. Thai Chiles are serious business. I opened my jar of nam prik pao and inhaled…big mistake. I started to cough and my eyes were watering. I stirred it up since there was a layer of oil on top and took a step back. The instructions said 3 tablespoons to 2 cups of water. (I also looked at the sodium content and decided I’d do what I do for all packaged soups….double the water and then season accordingly….old people watch their sodium.)
I first sautéed my veggies which only took a few minutes but then I took 4 cups of water and added only one tablespoon of paste. Bland. Very bland but I could taste the heat potential. I added another half tablespoon and it tasted pretty good. I added a little lime juice, a tablespoon of fresh chopped lemongrass and a dash of fish sauce. BINGO! (Oooo, BINGO…that sounds like something I should be playing soon.)
The chicken was cooked in the broth and my soup was done. (I didn’t have any cilantro but if I did I would have added it.) My little experiment provided 3 generous cups dare I say small bowls of soup. Plus, my entire costs was under $5 (for 3 servings) if I calculated it by ingredient.
By my math, they are making a pretty decent profit on a cup of soup. Good for them…bad for me because I love to eat soup as an economical meal when I go out. The positive side of my penny-pinching tale is that I figured out how to use my nam prik pao paste without lighting my mouth on fire or burning up the pennies in my pocket.
Tom Yum Soup
3-4 mushrooms cut thinly
1-2 Tablespoon Nam Prik Pao or Tom Yum Paste
4 cups of water
1 chicken breast, super thinly cut (If you slice it when it is still partially frozen, you can make paper thin slices.)
Optional: 1 cup of whatever veg you are trying to get out of your fridge…this isn’t really “authentic” but it helps with food wastes in your house and makes a heartier soup
1 Tablespoon Lemongrass, finely chopped
Juice/zest of one lime
In a saucepan, heat sesame oil over medium heat. Sauté the mushrooms until they have a little color on them. (Add other veggies at this time and sauté them with the mushrooms.)
Add the paste and coat the veggies.
Add the water.
Taste. Add more paste if you want it spicier.
Heat to boil.
Add the thin slices of chicken and lemongrass.
Cook about 2-3 minutes. (Your chicken should be cut paper thin and it won’t take but a second to cook it.)
Add lime juice and zest and serve. Garnish with a little cilantro if you have it or some green onion tops. I also like to have mine with a little slice of lime.