"I hate people who are not serious about meals. It is so shallow of them."
-The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde.
I have no idea what actually prompted our foray into Tom Kha, the Thai coconut soup that disappears so fast. It could be because of that one day we came across a crab coconut soup that was so similar. Or it could be because of Cha Da Thai, around the corner, where I tasted Tom Kha for the first time out of a hot pot and have been hooked ever since. Whatever the reason, Steve and I seasoned our wok for the sole purpose of getting it ready to make Tom Kha.
Because we were so new to Asian cooking in general, Tom Kha was our learning curve. Boy, did we have some trouble! The first time we used no stock, only coconut milk. We used packaged (but real) crab, button mushrooms, and an oily red curry paste. It was a start but I wouldn't even call it Tom Kha in any sense of the word. Plus, the amount of curry paste it called for gave us the runs the next day. (I'm sorry, is that TMI?)
Several months later, we thought it would brilliant to try to make it for eleven people during the family vacation. Following the advice of the woman at the local Asian market, we used dashi instead of seafood stock. Big mistake. We'd finally been able to locate straw mushrooms but not lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves or galangal. We tried lime juice and regular ginger as substitutes, but as you can imagine, the entire flavor was off. Needless to say, Steve and I were embarrassed. Frustrated, we set the idea aside.
After getting our feet wet at our local Asian market, Asia Grocery, we decided to try again. I mean, who can really stay away from fragrant coconut milk riddled with earthy mushrooms and sweet little tomatoes? Knowing we could get the ingredients we really wanted encouraged us to push forward! The result was highly satisfactory.
For the Tom Kha, we purchased half a pound of raw shrimp at Sea Products, Inc. (If you use shrimp, the soup is called Tom Kha Goong. If you use chicken, it's called Tom Kha Gai. Just a little trivia for ya!) We got our shrimp ready for cooking by picking off their legs, cutting and peeling their shell back and removing the vein. It was the first time we peeled and deveined shrimp, and it really is just as easy as I made it sound.
We then combined two cans of coconut milk with 16 oz of seafood stock and some fish sauce (or nam pla, in Thai). We also put in slices of galangal and the peels of a zested lime, a suggestion from the guy at Asia Grocery after he told me he didn't have kaffir lime leaves. Steve then squirted in the juice of half a lime and stirred in some white sugar.
After letting them heat up and simmer for a few minutes together, we used a strainer made specifically for the wok and strained out the galangal and lime peels (nobody wants to eat those). We then threw in a can of straw mushrooms and twelved roma tomatoes. (You should know I like to make up words. In other words, I cut the roma tomatoes into 12 pieces.) Just before we considered the soup finished, we slid our shrimp in and boy, do those babies cook up fast! We then served the soup with fresh cilantro on top.
The soup was amazing! It was by far the closest we've come to the delicious soup they serve in Thai restaurants. The shrimp absorbed the lime juice so that when you bit in, a citrusy hint of the sea peeked through the creamy coconut. The mushrooms, though canned, still grounded the soup with an earthiness. The tomatoes added sweetness. And our bowls were empty in about five minutes. (In case you're wondering, that's cold Jasmine tea.)
As good as it was, it still needs work. We refuse to stop here, at "good enough." Too many people are happy with good enough. If we serve this for anyone else, we want them to leave with the memory forever imprinted on their minds. I don't want people to say, "Well, that was fun." No, I want them to say, "Yes! We're eating at Steve and Kirsten's!" So next time, I would like to use grape or cherry tomatoes. I would like to use palm sugar instead of white. I will definitely add my coconut soup, stock and fish sauce together the night before and let it sit. Our leftovers the next day were so much more complex and integrated. And we need to work on balancing the coconut milk/stock ratio. And, of course, I want to remember my lemongrass!
You might notice a couple of things:
1) We used very little measurements. Thai cooking is difficult to put into measurements. There are different variations and strengths in certain things like coconut milk and fish sauce. To tweak our recipe, we're going to increase our seafood stock in order to cut down on the thickness of the coconut milk. This could backfire if we use a different, and therefore thinner, brand of coconut milk. Fish sauce is something you should taste test. Start small and work your way up. You'll know when you get that sweetsalty goodness you're looking for in the background.
2) No curry. Tom kha is a lot like many other popular dishes; there are different variations. Some people use shiitake mushrooms instead of straw. Some people add scallions. Some people use brown sugar instead of white, or no sugar at all. I even saw a tom kha drink at the Asia Grocery that contained coriander in it's ingredients. For our part, Steve and I like to leave the curry out.