One of my favorite parts of traveling in Southeast Asia is stumbling upon unique and delicious Southeast Asian soup recipes that are not widely known outside that country. That was exactly my experience with this Thai pork rib soup, called Tom Saap in Thai.
I only had it a few times in Thailand, but it was oh-so wonderfully memorable. I’ve never seen it on a Thai restaurant menu outside Thailand and for me, that’s what makes it even more special. Luckily, it’s not a hard recipe to make as I found my attempts to recreate it at home were pretty true to the versions I had in Thailand.
Tom Saap is a simple hot and sour Thai pork rib soup (sometimes, beef is used too) that is most popular in the northeast region of Thailand. The soup really showcases the fragrant depths of classic aromatic Thai herbs such as lemongrass, galangal, and kaffir lime leaves.
It has many similarities to Tom Yum, Thailand’s most famous hot and sour soup. For example, it’s broth-based and also features lime juice, fish sauce, and fresh Thai chiles. And it’s almost always served with a side of jasmine rice. But unlike Tom Yum, which usually includes shrimp (tom yum goong) or other seafood, Tom Saap includes heartier cuts of meat.
I wish I had taken a picture of Tom Saap when I was in Thailand. I only had it on my first trip to Thailand, many years ago, before the age of cell phone cameras. It was also the only time I made it to the northern regions. But I still remember it to this day.
I believe I had it in Chang Rai (not Chang Mai) at a Thai street food market. I remember the flavor immediately grabbing me. It had such a wonderful balance of sour, salty, and spicy flavors. None of them were overpowering. And the deep citrusy flavor from the Thai herbs was so fantastic.
In fact, it was one of the few recipes in my book, The Thai Soup Secret, that I felt I nailed on my first attempt during the recipe testing phase. It was so flavorful that I even surprised myself. I almost felt like I was back in Chang Rai eating it for the first time all over again.
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To make sure I wasn’t deceiving myself I asked a friend who had just stopped by at that moment to taste it. The look on his face after that first spoonful told me everything I needed to know. His eyes closed, his head tilted back, his breath deepened and he let out little groans of delight. I knew at that moment this recipe needed no further testing. Best of all, it’s really quite simple to make.
The three aromatics pictured above — galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves — are the key ingredients. There are no good substitutes! Galangal is pictured on the left. Lemongrass is pictured on top. Kaffir lime leaves are on the lower right. I’ll discuss the red chiles separately below. You’ll see these three herbs in countless Thai soup recipes such as Tom Yum Goong and Tom Kha Gai. They are not meant to be eaten but rather to infuse the soup with their pungent aromas and citrusy flavors.
While I’ve seen lemongrass in conventional supermarkets, I’ve never seen fresh galangal or kaffir lime leaves. But they can easily be found in most Asian markets. If you don’t have an Asian market near you, you can order them fresh on Amazon:
Most Thai pork rib soup recipes use either fresh Thai bird’s eye chiles, chile flakes, or roasted chile powder. I’ve even seen some recipes call for cayenne.
Thai chiles are super flavorful but can be overly intense for some. If you have little tolerance for heat and spice, go with the chile flakes or chile powder and just start with a pinch.
If you can tolerate heat and spice, go with the Thai chiles. For a mild kick use only one Thai chile. For a medium kick, use two. And for a really good kick, use three or more.
You could also not include any chiles at all in the cooking process and simply add them after the pork rib soup is fully cooked. Many people choose this approach so they can personally control the heat level.
I like Tom Saap best with a light and clear broth though richer broths are common too. For a light broth, using water as a base is preferable to a previously made pork broth as the pork ribs will create a light broth upon simmering. It’s probably also easier this way as most people don’t have pre-made pork broth ready for this recipe.
The amounts listed in the Ingredients section above are pretty conservative. Start there. But just know that you’ll need to add more, to taste, once the pork rib soup is done cooking. As this is typically a hot and sour soup, lime juice and chiles are often added liberally. But a little bit of sweetness and saltiness is good too. Let your taste buds guide you!
Craig Fear is the creator of Fearless Eating and the author of three books, The 30-Day Heartburn Solution, Fearless Broths and Soups and The Thai Soup Secret. After years helping clients with digestive issues, Craig decided to pursue writing full-time. He intends to write many more books on broths and soups from around the world! Click here to learn more about Craig.