I have friends in high places, meaning I got buddies who can cook.
One of those friends is Kiki, and ironically, we met in design school. We loved what we did at the time, never imagining that both of us would end up in a completely different place – the food world. Just one year after graduation, Kiki enrolled in culinary school and trained classically to become a chef. I went another route, choosing to focus more on organic, permaculture, and biodynamic farming, and became obsessed with food through growing it. It was a while before I could admit to myself that cooking was my true passion and a path I should follow. I continued to beat the drum of what I “should” have been doing, plugging away at graphic design while keeping a close eye on Kiki as she gleefully navigated her way through gastronomic territory.
Years later, we are living in Copenhagen. Coincidence? Completely. We both came for love, but mine was in the form of a tall, blonde man, and hers was in the form of a restaurant, called Noma . Kiki did a three-month stage (like an internship) there and warmed up to Denmark so much that she decided to stay! Lucky, lucky me. Now when we get together, it’s all food, all the time.
Kiki is from Bangkok, Thailand, and her food always tastes so special and exotic to me as she often cooks the authentic dishes of her culture. I remember the first time she made Pad Thai for me and it wasn’t orange. I looked at her and said, “um, I think it’s missing something”, to which she replied, “well, I don’t put ketchup in mine!” I learned that this is something Western versions often include. I was pretty excited to learn how the Thai dishes that I was familiar with were seldom made the same way in the region from where they originated. This is of course typical of most countries adapting flavours and ingredients to suit the general tastes.
A few months back Kiki came over to make some dinner together and brought the ingredients for a Thai coconut soup, called Tom Kah. Upon first slurp I nearly fell off my chair.
To say this dish is good would be the understatement of the year. It is so explosively flavourful, so complex, so beguilingly delicious that you will want to make it over and over again, as I have. It is also disappointingly easy; just throw everything into the pot and simmer for a bit, strain, and voila! It’s kind of like making a big pot of tea. It just goes to show that when you have the right ingredients, delicious food can be so delightfully simple.
Your pal, Galangal Galangal is a rhizome, used heavily in Thai, Indonesian and Vietnamese cuisine. At first glance galangal looks very similar to ginger and one may assume it is just another variety, but they are actually quite different. Galangal tastes more like pepper, citrus, or pine than ginger. The skin of galangal is tighter and lighter in colour, and its flesh is far denser – almost as hard as wood.
Similar to ginger however, are the numerous medicinal uses and health benefits this little rhizome boasts. Galangal has turmeric-like, anti-inflammatory qualities and is therefore very helpful in treating arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as the inflammation caused by ulcers. If you are feeling nauseous, chewing on a little hunk of galangal will help ease symptoms – it has been used to treat motion and morning sickness. Galangal improves circulation and digestion, and helps alleviate diarrhea.
Nutrients in galangal include iron, vitamin A and C.
Galangal is commercially available fresh, which is the best for flavour, but you can also find it dried and powdered. If you are using whole pieces of the dried tuber, soak it in hot water before using it. If you are using powdered galangal, replace about half inch (1.25cm) of peeled and chopped fresh galangal with 1 teaspoon of galangal powder.
Yes, this ingredient list requires a trip to the ethnic grocery store, but it is well worth it. Kiki went so far as to say that if you cannot find each and every ingredient don’t bother making the soup at all. I found this slightly discouraging, as I know many of you don’t live anywhere near a market that would sell many of these items. With this in mind, I made the soup a second time and used a few more ubiquitous elements. For instance, I have a hard time finding galangal in my neighborhood, so ginger worked well in my batch. I realize that this does change the flavour of the soup a great deal, and I can no longer call it Tom Kha, (as “kha” is the word for galangal) hence the name, The Best Coconut Soup, Ever.
I used coconut sugar instead of palm sugar because that is what I had on hand. If you are vegetarian, omit the fish sauce and use tamari or just sea salt in a pinch. Kiki insisted that we use fish sauce for authenticity’s sake and I’ll admit that when we taste-tested the bowls with and without fish sauce right next to one another, the fish sauce version won me over. Later, when I made it myself, I just used tamari and it was super yummy, but I also had nothing else to compare it to. I leave this decision up to you.
The Best Coconut Soup, Ever
Serves 3- 4 2 cans coconut milk
10 cilantro roots
6-7 stalks lemongrass
2-4 bird’s eye / Thai chilies (to your taste)
50g / 1.75oz galangal root (or ginger)
50g / 1.75oz palm sugar (or coconut sugar)
12 kaffir lime leaves
generous handful of white button mushrooms, sliced
4 cloves garlic
juice of 3 limes
3 Tbsp. fish sauce (or tamari or salt to taste)
about 1 cup water (depending on the consistency of the coconut milk)
1. Begin by preparing all the soup’s ingredients. Wash the cilantro well in a bowl full of water, swishing the greens and roots around until completely free of dirt. Remove the upper portion of the stems, and setting them aside for garnish – we just want to use the roots here. Cut the lemongrass off where the white base portion ends and discard the tops. Pound the lemongrass until they are cracked and open. Slice the shallots. Peel and cut the galangal into chunks and pound it until it releases a little liquid. Tear the lime leaves into smaller pieces. Slice the mushrooms. Peel and smash the garlic.
2. In a medium saucepan, place the coconut milk, cilantro roots, lemongrass, shallots, chili, galangal, sugar, lime leaves, and garlic. Bring to a very gentle simmer and cook for about 15 minutes, with a lid on.
3. Strain soup through a sieve into another saucepan. Discard all solids. Add the sliced mushrooms, limejuice, fish sauce, and water until it is the right consistency. You want the soup to be light, but still creamy – this is up to you. Bring soup up to a light simmer again just to cook the mushrooms slightly. Do not boil. Season to taste and serve immediately with cilantro leaves, a slice of chili, extra lime and thinly sliced lime leaves. Serve with rice, if desired.