Tom Khaa is one of my favorite comfort foods. It’s rich, savory, has a unique blend of flavors and even in warm weather it can refresh and soothe you. It’s also made with ingredients that are becoming increasingly more common in your local grocery, which makes it an exotic treat that’s easily in reach.
I’ve had this soup numerous times, but predictably I didn’t really enjoy it until I tried it in Thailand. I was on Ko Phi Phi, on vacation from my teaching job, stressed out beyond belief, hungry and tired. A beach side restaurant offered a big steaming bowl of tom khaa for 50 cents American, so I had to give it a go.
The intense flavor bowled me over and made my dinner companion weep. That’s what a good chili will do! I laughed so hard I started to cry and the tension of work finally, for the first time in days, melted away. I still remember the tang of lime, the velvety flavor of coconut rippling over my tongue, and the bite of the chili.
I was thinking the other day that I needed to eat more fish, but instead I ended up with a half pound of shrimp and a hankering for this soup. When I found out that a stalk of lemongrass could be purchased cheaply at the grocery store along wtih a deal on coconut milk, and my friend Ghina called to say she was having a bad day, it seemed like fate. This stuff is good for what ails you- mind or body.
Ghina came over and was in a foul mood because of work (shocker). I gave her an ear as I chopped, minced, and boiled, pushing Ghina to sniff and taste everything. Sure enough, as I cooked, Ghina relaxed.
“What does fish sauce do?” she asked. I gave her a taste of the soup before I added it and she pronounced it good in a noncommittal tone. Then I poured in the fish sauce and offered her another taste. Her reaction was immediate- “Oh yeah! That’s IT!” We settled down on my couch with two large steaming bowls of creamy goodness and suddenly work, even though it was a weeknight, was worlds away.
The following recipe does not contain galangal, which many folks will tell you is essential, but frankly if you can’t find it you can still make a delicious soup. Trust me.
Tom Khaa Soup
3 cups chicken (or vegetable) stock
1 stalk lemongrass
3 kaffir lime leaves (usu. available at Whole Foods or other gourmet markets)
3 cloves garlic
1 or 2 red chilies
2 tbsp. fish sauce
1 pkg sliced shiitakes or 1 handful if you buy bulk
12 medium or large raw shrimp
1 14 oz can coconut milk
3-4 sprigs of cilantro for garnish
Optional: additional whole red chilies, red pepper, bell pepper, or cherry tomatoes. Lime garnish.
Note: 1 1/2 cups of shredded cooked chicken can be substituted for the shrimp.
1.) Pour stock into a large pot.
2.) Remove the outer leaves and bulb of the lemongrass and slice it thinly. Take a moment to sniff- it’s gorgeous. Toss into a food processor and process until finely grated. If you don’t have a food processor, mince well. You can also use a mortar and pestle. Add to stock.
3.) Mince garlic and add to stock with whole and one sliced chili (remove the seeds to temper the heat), and lime leaves. Bring to a boil, then add the shiitakes and shrimp. Boil for 8-10 minutes.
4.) Lower the heat. Add the coconut milk and taste the soup. Add the fish sauce and taste again- it really makes a difference. Stir well. Add peppers and other ingredients as desired. If you went overboard on the chilies, as if that’s possible, add more coconut milk.
5.) Put a sprig or two of cilantro in each bowl, then pour the soup over. Squeeze a bit of fresh lime on top.
This soup keeps well in the fridge, just make sure you give it a good stir while reheating.