Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Soup Wars: Tom Kha kicks Chicken Soup's Ass Kung-Fu Style

Okay, so I know kung-fu is Chinese, but "muay-thai-style" (Thailand's signature martial art and national sport) wouldn't have been as funny.

Tom Kha is a Thai (and Laotian, or Lao) soup that is warming, filling, a little spicy, and full of hearty vegetables and tofu - the perfect contender for the "I feel terrible and all I want is soup and old episodes of West Wing" crown. The fragrant lemongrass and galanga broth, with tons of coconut milk added to make it creamy and rich, is the perfect thing to engage the dulled senses of a couch-dwelling invalid, while spicy prik pao sauce (which gives you control over how much spice you want) will clean out a congested nose and chest.

Alternately, if you're at the peak of health and all of your senses are at their sharpest, tom kha is impressive - its flavor is complex and distinctive, the lemongrass and galanga give it a fantastic scent, and the slightly translucent creamy broth with tiny beads of red oil from the prik pao is visually satisfying. Can you tell that I'm in love? Here's the bowl that did it, from Taste of Thai in Knoxville:

Note that I ate about half of it before I remembered to take a picture of it.

Just before I discovered tom kha, my brother had been in Thailand for about a month, and when he returned, he brought me back what he knew I'd like best - Thai spices. He also brought my dad the dried ingredients for tom yam, which shares the broth base with tom kha. Read the directions; my favorite is step 4.

 He really loved his time in Thailand, and came back with so many wonderful stories and such a respect for the people there. He also happens to be a wonderful photographer, so stick around after the recipe for some of my favorite pictures from his trip. Here's a teaser:

Photo courtesy of Mason Winsauer
 Just a note - most tom kha recipes use fish sauce, which I've replaced with tamari, so if you are at a Thai restaurant, you'll want to check with them (though they'll almost certainly be using the fish sauce). This is the main reason I've made so many batches trying to perfect this recipe at home.

If you don't need this much, reduce the recipe. Leftovers lose some flavor, and though you can perk it up by adding some more fresh lime juice, it's much better fresh. Once you've made it a couple of times, this soup is extremely easy, and such a treat! Make some rice to go with it - my favorite way to eat it is by dipping a spoonful of rice into the soup so that it absorbs some liquid and then eating that. Extraordinarily good!

Photo courtesy of Mason Winsauer
Tom Kha
Serves about 6

6 c. coconut milk
3 c. water or vegetable stock
6 stalks of lemongrass
12 thin slices of galanga (a.k.a galangal or garlanga)
5 Tbsp. tamari (or other soy sauce, but you'll need a bit more - just use them to taste and watch the saltiness)
2 Tbsp. palm sugar or raw sugar
6 kaffir lime leaves, torn (these have been hard for me to find, so if you can't, just leave them out)
1/2 tsp. nam prik pao (Thai fried chili paste - really cheap at almost any Asian grocery, and very versatile)
6-10 cremini mushrooms or your favorite kind, sliced thinly
1 small carrot, thinly sliced (a mandoline would be ideal for this)
1 small crown of broccoli, cut into bite-sized florets
12-oz package of fried tofu (again, easy to find at an Asian market)
1 small bunch of fresh cilantro (don't try to substitute dried seasoning; the wilted leaf is the goal)
2 1/2 Tbsp. fresh lime juice

 First, thoroughly rinse the lemongrass and galanga. If the outermost leaf of the lemongrass has any discoloration or moldiness, remove it and rinse the remaining stalk. The waxy skin of the galanga can get a little slimy, so rinse very thoroughly.
Lemongrass, pounded and cut

Cut off the very end of each stalk of lemongrass, about the last 1/4" or 1/2". On a solid surface, use a heavy object like a rolling pin to carefully pound the length of the lemongrass stalk to break up the fibrous inside layers and release the flavor. You don't need to destroy them, just soften them up. When that's done, cut the stalks into 2-inch pieces, ending when the stalk begins to get loose and grassy. Many recipes will say to use only the white bit, but it's not a clear transition and I think a good 4 inches more are perfectly usable.

Galanga, whole and sliced
The galanga is woody and fibrous, so be careful when you cut it because it is very tough. Cut about 12 thin slices, or the equivalent in smaller angular pieces, which you will undoubtedly have to cut because the galanga root is very knobbly and irregular.

If you're in doubt, use extra lemongrass and galanga. The only element of this soup that is difficult to correct as you go along is the broth, and if it is too weak, that will really affect the taste. Also,keep in mind that it will be heavily diluted by the coconut milk, so the first time you make it, you may want to go overboard a bit until you get a feel for how much you need.

Simmer the lemongrass and galanga in the 3 cups of water in a large pot with the lime leaves and sugar for about 15-20 minutes. While this is happening, prep your vegetables. Slice the mushrooms and carrots thinly, cut the broccoli into small florets. Slice the fried tofu into small strips, about 1/4-inch thick.

Add coconut milk, nam prik pao and soy sauce, and simmer another 5 minutes. When that's done, remove all the solids with a strainer or a slotted spoon. I forgot once, added all the vegetables, then had to pick out all of the stringy bits of lemongrass by hand - not fun, and likely to burn your fingers.

Add the carrots and tofu first, then the broccoli and mushrooms a couple of minutes later. Cook until vegetables are just becoming tender but are still crispy. Remove from heat, add lime juice and cilantro and stir. At this point, adjust seasonings as you need to - if it doesn't have that distinctive Tom Kha tang, you may need more lime juice. If you want more heat, add a little more prik pao.You may need to add more salt, though the soy sauce is likely enough. Serve hot.

Enjoy some travel photos while you dig in:

Photo courtesy of Mason Winsauer

Photo courtesy of Mason Winsauer

Photo courtesy of Mason Winsauer

Photo courtesy of Mason Winsauer

Photo courtesy of Mason Winsauer

Photo courtesy of Mason Winsauer

Photo courtesy of Mason Winsauer

My brother and his fiancee, Lauren Moore, with monkey


  1. YUM! So when are you going to make this for me???
    Also, Monkey pictures!!!

  2. wow I love that you veganized this soup. I've tried veganizing Vietnamese Pho soup and had a mild success doing so, but nothing to write home about. It was lacking that little "kick" if you know what I mean. I'm sure the citrus and lemongrass in this gives it a wonderful flavor. Thanks for sharing :)

  3. I'm glad you like it! I love pho too, and I hope you saw my pho timbales - a lucky idea salvaged from my own mild success at the soup. I plan to have another go at classic pho some time, but I'm still really happy with my timbales - sometimes the best food happens by accident. Thanks again!