Tom Kha Gai (Thai coconut lemongrass soup)

This is my favorite soup.  From the first moment I tasted this soup in Thailand, I was dumbfounded by the flavors.  It was so rich, so spicy, so tangy.  Every time I eat it, I’m reminded of the time I was stranded in a cave in Thailand with my friend Ricky and two other backpackers we had recently met.

We all kayaked to a small island inhabited only by “nest gatherers,” a native tribe who build precarious scaffolding out of bamboo and vines, and climb hundreds of feet up the cliffs inside sea caves to gather the dried-saliva nests of cave swallows.  These nests are used to make “bird’s nest soup” (sorry, you won’t find a recipe for it in this book) and, ounce for ounce, these dried-saliva nests are worth more than gold.

We had walked around the cave, marveling at their primitive scaffolding, and were about to kayak back to the island where our huts were, when a giant storm blew in from out of nowhere, the sea turned black and hostile, and we realized we were stuck there for awhile.

The nest gatherers spoke no English.  And we didn’t speak a word of their dialect.  But they had a fire going which was warming Tom Kha Gai soup, and they were eager to share with us.  After our bellies were all full of this spicy, rich brew, the language barrier became irrelevant and we communicated by drawing pictures in the sandy floor of the cave, acting out scenes like charades, and laughing until our bellies hurt.  Near the end of the evening, one of the girls with us discovered that a nest gatherer had officially chosen her to be his bride.  Lucky for her, the storm let up and we could kayak home.

You can get this soup at any Thai restaurant in the world, but where I grew up in rural West Texas, there weren’t any Thai restaurants.  So as soon as I got home from Thailand, the first thing I did was make this soup for my parents, whose palates, like mine, had never experienced anything so exotic.  It was an experiment, and I had no clue what the outcome would be.

The outcome was that my mother insisted that I bring her an annual supply of the ingredients for this soup so she can make it every couple of weeks.  They’re addicted.  You will be, too, if you’ve never tried it.

There are some ingredients in this recipe which you simply have to have in order to make Tom Kha Gai taste right, and these are readily available at Asian grocery stores.  If you don’t have an Asian grocery store, you can order these ingredients from the internet, or use the substitutions I suggest.  You’ll still end up with a tasty soup if you substitute, but it won’t be true Tom Kha Gai.

2 cans coconut milk (unsweetened)

2 cups chicken stock (or veggie stock)

1 inch galangal root, thinly sliced
(You can substitute ginger root for galangal, but the taste will be significantly different.  Galangal can be bought fresh at most Asian markets, or you can buy a large bag of dried galangal on the internet which will last you a few years.)

8 grinds of black pepper

1 stalk lemongrass, bruised
(If you can’t get it, just leave it out of the recipe.)

10 kaffir lime leaves
(If you can’t get them, just leave them out, also.)

Combine all these ingredients in a large soup pot and bring to a simmer.  Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes.  Then strain through a strainer or colander to remove the galangal and leaves.  Add:

1-2 cups shredded cooked chicken (unless you’re making this for vegetarians)

Boil 10 minutes, and then add:

1 can straw mushrooms, drained
(You can substitute 1 cup fresh sliced mushrooms, any kind.)

4 Tablespoons lime juice

zest of 1 lime

3 Tablespoons fish sauce [***see note at the end of this recipe]
(You can substitute 3 finely diced anchovies for fish sauce, and don’t just leave this out, it’s necessary, unfortunately.  Most grocery stores now carry fish sauce in the Asian section.  Technically speaking this will prohibit this soup from being vegetarian, though none of my vegetarian friends mind me using fish sauce.)

1 teaspoon – 2 Tablespoons red curry paste
(Use more or less depending on how spicy you want the soup to be.  Substitute 1-3 teaspoons dried red pepper if you can’t find red curry paste, but some flavor will be lost.)

Stir well and boil 5 minutes.  Then toss in:

¼ cup chopped green onions/scallions (green part only)

Serve immediately either as a soup, or ladled over jasmine rice.  Mmmmm…

***A word about fish sauce…

Here’s how it’s made:

It smells foul, but makes food DELICIOUS!

After the fishermen in Southeast Asia bring in their catch, all the fish that are too small to be sold for meat are turned into fish sauce.  They take the fish and bash them into a poultice and mix them with salt.  Then they pour all the bashed fish into giant vats and let them sit out in the sun for a year to “ferment.”  I’ve been within a mile of some of these vats, and let me tell you, it does not smell good.

After the fish poultice is thoroughly fermented (i.e. rotten), the liquid which drains off of it is fish sauce.

And there’s not a single Thai recipe in existence that doesn’t call for fish sauce.

Now who, I wonder, is the idiot who came up with that?  Who said, “Let’s bash this fish into a slurry and let it rot in the sun for a year, and whatever fluid comes off of it, that should be the foundational ingredient for our culture’s cuisine!”

Strangely enough, as foul as fish sauce is, you simply can’t make Thai food without it.  And it makes Thai food taste amazing.

The only problem when cooking with fish sauce is that it’s smell is pervasive.

I remember eating Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup, pronounced “fuh”) with my friends JP and Jacques in Montreal once upon a time.  On the table were half a dozen bottles full of various condiments to add to the soup, and I was opening and smelling each one to determine what they were.

When I got to the bottle filled with dark, clear liquid, I accidentally touched it to my nose as I sniffed.  The smell almost made me pass out, and I realized it was fish sauce.  After several minutes of desperately stifling the urge to vomit, I got control of myself.

My friends had carried the bottle away from the table, but the smell had crept back and I couldn’t get rid of it.  I went into the bathroom and washed my hands and face with soap.  Back at the table, the smell returned.  And the soup I was eating began to smell like pure fish sauce.

Eventually I had to stop eating and we left the restaurant, but the smell followed us.  People were scowling at me on the subway and moving several rows back from me.  That evening at the bed and breakfast, the smell filled the room.  We couldn’t escape!  I ended up throwing almost all my clothes into a trash can in the alley behind the B&B, and the owner of the B&B politely asked us to leave the next morning because of the smell.

Now…don’t let that scare you.

HA!  Seriously, though, you can’t make Thai food, or this soup in particular, without fish sauce.  Treat it with respect and care, and it won’t take over your kitchen.

My Asian grocery store has tiny bottles of fish sauce, so when I open a bottle, I use the entire bottle, and then I seal it in a zip-top bag and throw it into an outside trash can.  My mother keeps a normal-sized bottle in her fridge, double-bagged, and doesn’t have a problem with odor.

Don’t let this amusing story frighten you away from using it.  It adds an incredible layer of flavor that no other substitute can.  Obviously, I lived through the nightmare and I still use it.  That should mean something!

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