My husband and I had only set foot in the restaurant when we realized that we did not belong. We had chosen to visit this place – a cozy eatery boasting an organic, local menu on the trendy side of Nashville, on the pretext that we had recently been given a gift card and our fellow foodie friends loved it (but mainly because of the gift card). It was about 11:00 on a Sunday morning, but everyone not seated at a table was holding Mimosas or Bloody Marys while talking in cliquish groups and smiling entirely too big, which just reminded me of high school all over again, without the fancy cocktails. Uncertain how to acquire a table in this environment, I shyly approached a very stylishly dressed man with a clipboard. I had barely squeaked out the word “um,” before his hand was in my face, forbidding me to speak while he scribbled something on the clipboard. He didn’t even look at me. I suddenly felt very poor (how did he know about the gift card?) and unimportant. I reached for my husband’s hand to reassure myself that this indeed was not high school. After a few awkward minutes standing there waiting to be acknowledged, our names were taken and 15 minutes later we were seated at a 4-person table which we shared with another couple (strangers) who not once looked in our direction, or at least from what I could tell, because the gentleman wore sunglasses throughout the meal.
I ordered the shiitake and Gouda omelet with mixed greens, and M ordered the beef medallions with a red wine and balsamic reduction and breakfast potatoes. As I shamefully handed the waiter our gift card, I realized that this was the most unnecessarily pretentious meal I had ever eaten. For Gouda’s sake, the omelet was only $10!
What I love most about cooking Thai food is its utter lack of pretentiousness. Don’t have fancy knife skills? No problem – go ahead and roughly chop those veggies! This is a cuisine that calls you to smash chilies and tear (yes, tear!) the kaffir lime leaves into big pieces before you put it into the pot. Sure, go ahead and chop up the cilantro stems and put them in the pot, too. Who in their right mind separates and uses only the leaves, anyway?
This lack of “refinement” is not to say that they do not take pride in their national dishes, however – and with great reason. Everything that comes out of Thailand is delicious, and Tom Kha Kai is no exception. Literally translating as chicken galangal soup, it is traditionally made with savory stock, coconut milk, vegetables, and the essential herbs. Here I have replaced the chicken with lots of vegetables currently abundant in Korea, forgone the sugar (Thai people use it in everything), and substituted a smidgen of soy sauce for the fish sauce. The vegetables that I used worked wonderfully for me, but are obviously optional and can be substituted or omitted according to your own preferences. I hope you enjoy.
4 cups low-sodium vegetable stock
1 cup of canned coconut milk or cream, unsweetened
2-3 large kaffir lime leaves, middle stem removed, torn into pieces
2 lemongrass stalks, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 quarter-sized piece of galangal, minced (this is Thai ginger; if you find it difficult to obtain, regular ginger substitutes well)
1/2 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon lime juice
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro, plus more for garnish
3 small hot chilies, stems removed and sliced in half
2 Japanese eggplant, roughly chopped
1/2 of a large zucchini, roughly chopped
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
1 large carrot, roughly chopped
1 can of diced tomatoes, drained and rinsed
1. In a pot on the stove, heat the stock and coconut milk on low heat until it simmers.
2. Add the kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, chilies and galangal. Allow the mixture to simmer for 4-5 minutes, or until fragrant.
3. At this point you may strain your soup, if you wish, although I serve everything in my soup and allow guests to remove whatever they do not prefer to eat. Lemongrass, although not inedible, is quite fibrous and very unpleasant to chew. I find kaffir lime leaves to be similarly unpleasant to chew, although my husband loves eating them. Also, your guests may not enjoy eating half of a chili pepper in a single bite, though again, my husband does.
4. Add the vegetables and remaining ingredients and allow the soup to simmer for 10 minutes, or at least until the carrots are tender.
5. Ladle the soup into bowls and serve hot, with a generous garnish of cilantro.
I hope you have enjoyed this recipe. For an impressive Thai spread, make the soup alongside Lemongrass and Ginger Iced Tea and Grilled Mushrooms with Tamarind Peanut Dipping Sauce.