So, I feel a little redundant saying this, since you’ve all ready my lengthy and slightly verbose (Who would have guessed?) autobiography, but tom kha is what made me like Thai food. Again, you all know I’m not a huge fan of sweet, slimy good, in general, and when I was a wee thing, my parents always ordered something in that vein for me when we went for Thai. I figured it was all greasy and sweet and noodley and in general what I just.. don’t care for. Until..
Until! Until I went my freshman year of college with an old boyfriend and some of his friends into town and they demanded we eat at this Thai place. I was told they served sushi, and that the boyfriend would secretly get me Mexican food later on, so I was down. And then they literally forced me to have a bowl of tom kha. And then..
It was like running up a hill in a peasant dress, throwing daisy petals everywhere, and some Chaka Khan song playing in the background. And to whom was I running? That’s right. Tom kha. And Thai food everywhere, in general.
There was no decent Thai place in the actual college town until the year I left, of course, so I set out to make my own. Then.. kinda realized that there was no decent Asian market there, either, so no lemongrass, no galangal, no kaffir lime leaves for me. Not even any Thai chiles. For shame, Collegetown. For shame.
I eventually worked up a “Deprived College Town” version using ginger, lemon juice and lemon zest, lime juice and lime zest, and chile oil, but it just didn’t cut it. But it cut it enough. Oh, did it.
However, then I had the pleasure of basically vacationing for a semester in Paris where, turns out, they have phenomenal Asian markets. I finally got my hands on the real stuff daily. Sure, I’d made a couple of real batches when visiting a boy in Los Angeles, but I never really got to sit down and perfect it. By the end of the semester in Paris, I was being asked to give cooking classes on how to make my Thai soups. Pretttttty famous, I was.
And now, after a brief stint back in Collegetown and then Memphis where you should probably pack heat to go down to the only decent Asian market (Note: I do not condone packing heat. I’m much more of a keys-in-your-fingers-Wolverine-style to scare off all the people who are obviously going to mug me. However, my mother says constantly “Well, now I’m just waiting to get shot”, after the ridiculous guns in bars ordinance, so I’m saying this to scare her. Hey ma.. Boo! Ha! Scared you. OK, onward.), I’m in a decent town with a more than decent Asian market. That place. Is. Huge. It’s no Fiesta, of course, but it’s got all the goods. So, naturally, one of the first things I did here was go down and stock up. If you hadn’t noticed, I’d gotten a little sidetracked by the phenomenon of breakfast tacos, but I got down to it and made my tom kha tofu the other day. And oh mama, it was good.
Note: I’m going to post my recipe that includes real Thai vegetables, but will also link to my Deprived Collegetown recipe, as well, just in case any of you poor devotees can’t get your hands on the goods.
And here’s all the stuff you might not be able to get..
Kaffir lime leaves which are pretty easy to replace, just with some extra lime juice or lime zest, but definitely worth it if you can get your hands on some. Then Thai birds eye chilis which are totally delicious. I tried making tom yum with jalapeños once since I couldn’t get any of the Thai chilis, and after just boiling some lemongrass and the jalapeños in some chicken stock, it tasted grossly metallic. I’m not sure if it was the saucepan or the chilis, but since I was at the parents’ house, I couldn’t logically blame the pans.. So, basically, I’m not sure if you could sub jalapeños. If anything I’d sub maybe a serrano, or just skip all of that and go for chili paste or chili oil. Moving on to the third styrofoam pack thing, galangal! Galangal is “kha” in Thai, so it’s generally frowned upon to use ginger over it, but it’s really not that big of a deal. It’s closely related to ginger, has a slightly.. hmmm, spicier? tone. But, no sweat, if you can’t get any, you can easily substitute peeled slices of ginger root or even minced bottled ginger like I used to use. The thing with subbing stuff is that it’s less cut and dried; you’ll have to taste and season more, but no biggie. Alright, up above the ginger is lemongrass, obviously–probably the easiest of the weird stuff to get. Lemongrass has a really earthy, lemony flavor, so it’s a bit hard to substitute, but you can get it dried or frozen or even in those little tubes near the fresh herbs at the grocery store. Except I got that stuff once and was not a fan. In my Deprived Collegetown recipe, I sub with lemon zest and juice. Not the same by any means, but it’ll do if you’ve got no other options. Moving on, good Asian chicken stock! It’s made a little differently than traditional American chicken stock, but really, no biggy. And then lastly, palm sugar, which is, oh goodness, so delicious. It tastes a lot like light brown sugar, but if you can get palm sugar, definitely do so.
So first, you “bruise” the lemongrass by pounding it with the side of a big ole knife and your, well, fist, in my case, and then chop it into pieces about this big:
And you only use the real meaty part of the stalk, the pretty white part. Leave the grassy part for the raccoons.
Then the mighty chilis. I used a lot, because I like it quite spicy, but you don’t have to. Similarly, I slice those boys open to get all of the seeds and spiciness out, but if you want it kind of medium, just pound them. If you want it pretty mild, throw them in whole.
Then, you dump in the chicken stock–I used a big can, about 28 ounces, makes a lot–and the cut lemongrass, galangal, chilis, and some lime leaves you just tear in half, and boil that for about five to ten minutes.
And now you begin to season. I dumped in one little patty of palm sugar, but started off with half of one. Cut to show the size:
When making this in Paris, the palm sugar came in a little bowl, so I usually just scraped out about a teaspoon at a time and kept adding. I think this batch could’ve even used a bit more, but it’s all really personal. Diary-worthy.
Then comes the fish sauce, ooooh, the dreaded fish sauce. This stuff reeks but tastes soooo gooood. It’s super salty, so start out with less. Always. Put a few dashes in, taste, more, taste, whatever. I like everything pretty salty, so I always end up putting at least a couple tablespoons in a batch about that big, but feel free to not develop premature high blood pressure like I.
Then, when it’s good and all seasoned to your likin’s, you.. eat. And I know, I know, Sapporo is Japanese, but I always got it back home when I ordered tom kha, and just can’t help myself. I’ve got a bag of Thai tea leaves waiting for me as we speak, but didn’t when I made this first batch.
The only tricky thing about eating this baby is knowing what not to eat. You don’t eat the lemongrass, the galangal, the chilis (Unless you be crazy!), or the lime leaves. You end up with a plate looking like this:
But eat the rest of it. And go cuddle with yourself. You won’t be able to resist. You know the way to your heart is through your stomach, and you might just be the best suitor yet..
Tom Kha Tofu/Gai
I’m not vegetarian by any means, obviously, but I love tofu in this soup. However, I used to make it with chicken, so I’ll add that in for you needy carnivores (Even though, yes, I know by virtue of you eating anything besides meat, you’re an herbivore, but it just sounds better). I velvet the chicken like they do at a lot of Chinese restaurants so it doesn’t get tough and grainy in the soup. Definitely works.
28 ounces good Asian chicken stock
3-4 stalks lemongrass, bruised and cut into 1-2″ pieces
8-16 red Thai birds eye chilis, whole, crushed, or sliced in half lengthwise
10 small kaffir lime leaves, torn in half
12 slices galangal
28 ounces coconut milk
1 little patty palm sugar, about 1 tablespoon
Fish sauce, starting with about a teaspoon
6 large white mushrooms, sliced thin
Small lime per bowl of soup
Cilantro, chopped fine, for garnish/taste
Green onions, sliced fine, for garnish/taste
For tom kha tofu
6 ounces firm tofu, cut into small cubes
For tom kha gai
1-2 chicken breasts, cut into small pieces
1 egg white
1 tablespoon cornstarch
3 cups water
2 tablespoons oil
To velvet chicken, if making tom kha gai: Lightly beat egg white and combine with cornstarch. Toss the chicken strips or cubes in this mixture, then cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Heat the water and oil in a pot or a wok, until it’s hot enough that a piece of chicken floats to the top when you put it inches Put the chicken in, in shifts if you have to to keep it from crowding, and cook until it’s white, about 30 seconds. If you’re not using the chicken straight away, refrigerate it until you do.
Boil lemongrass, chilis, lime leaves, and galangal in chicken stock for five to ten minutes.
Add coconut milk and season with palm sugar and fish sauce. Taste and add more fish sauce for saltiness, palm sugar for complex sweetness. Add in mushrooms and simmer for about five minutes.
Add in either tofu or chicken and simmer about five more minutes to warm through.
Ladle into bowls and garnish with cilantro and green onions. Squeeze half of one small lime into each bowl, adding the juice of the other half if desired.
Deprived Collegetown recipe here.