Memories, with Soup ~
This evening, I’m making Tom Kha Gai for dinner ~ Thai chicken coconut soup. A delicious perfume fills the air while it simmers … as exotic as it is comforting. It’s particularly so for me because whenever I make it, I am filled with memories of Alma, my “second mom” and dear friend.
She nourished my soul and my stomach in countless ways over the years that my husband and I lived in Seattle, and perhaps even more-so when we moved two hours away. Her home and her hugs were a solace and anytime was a good time, unless it wasn’t, and she’d tell you straight up. Then she’d make up for it, in spades, with delicious food accompanied by her raucous and gravelly laugh, fresh flowers from her garden - in any old jar - on the battered kitchen table and plenty of wisdom and opinion.
The first time I tasted this soup was at 3 a.m. after a wild night out with my gay friend, dancing until I couldn’t anymore. He found some friends and headed off, while I made my way to Alma’s. She knew I was in town for a getaway and she was a night owl, like me. I arrived, disheveled and barefoot. I’d tossed the heels in the back seat already. I knocked and, when she answered the door, she said, “Jeezus! Do you need wine or coffee?” I said, “Wine. And I’m starved.” “Good. I just finished making tom kha gai. Sit down.” She poured us some plonk, ladled the silky, white liquid into bowls and lit a cigarette.
The citrusy-floral, fishy but not, tropical, spicy-heat scent of it filled my senses as I hungrily spooned it down and asked for more. I didn’t have a hangover, but it seemed like it would be an excellent antidote for one. Through blue smoke and the scent of soup, we talked about life until almost daybreak. Love you and miss you, Alma.
TOM KAH GAI ~ Thai Chicken Coconut Soup
2 T. peanut oil
2 shallots, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 stems lemongrass, outer leaves removed, stem smashed and cut in 3 inch lengths
12 kaffir lime leaves, torn
1 5-inch piece galangal root (or use peeled fresh ginger), cut into 1 inch pieces
1 Serrano chile, seeded and diced
1-2 t. Sambal Oelek (red chili paste)
¼ t. ground white or black pepper
3 T. fish sauce
6 c. chicken stock
2 14 oz. cans coconut milk
1 c. fresh shiitake mushrooms, sliced OR 2 oz. dried shiitakes, soaked in hot water and drained
3 t. white sugar
2 chicken breasts, cubed into bite-sized pieces
3 sprigs Thai basil, torn
Juice of one lime
¼ c. cilantro, chopped roughly
Add the peanut oil to a large stock pot over medium heat. Once hot and shimmering, add shallots and garlic and cook until translucent, stirring. Add lemongrass, lime leaves, galangal or ginger, Serrano chile, chili paste and pepper. Sauté 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add fish sauce, chicken stock, coconut milk and mushrooms. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer for 15 minutes to bring out the flavor of the aromatics and soften the mushrooms. Add chicken and simmer another 10 minutes. Add Thai basil and lime juice and simmer 2 more minutes. Ladle soup into bowls, sprinkle top with fresh cilantro and serve.
** You can put a scoop of cooked jasmine rice into the bowl before adding the soup, if desired.