Hot & Sour Soup for the Ailing Home Cook

Tom Kha Talay

Whenever I get a cold, I crave Tom Kha, Thai hot and sour coconut soup. Recently, I was quite miserable with a scratchy throat, headache, and mild fever. Everyone around me says it’s die-off. Whatever, I felt lousy. Gargling with warm salt water and breathing steam helped some, but mostly, I just wanted my comfort soup.

The last time I had a cold like this, I couldn’t drag myself to the store to get the ingredients essential to this soup: lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal root. At the time, my husband was working long hours far from home, so I couldn’t ask him to pick up some take-out soup for me. I finally rallied enough to pick up take out myself, but was determined that next time I had a cold, I’d be prepared. When I felt better, I went to the Lily Market, a nearby Thai market that I’ve shopped at for a decade, and picked up the essentials. I spoke with the owner, who years ago took me around the store, showing me all I needed to make a good hot and sour soup, about my emergency soup plan. He agreed that freezing the essentials would be fine and let me know that I could also get dried galangal root.

He then proceeded to give me a short Thai language lesson. Tom means soup. Tom Kha means coconut soup. Tom Yum is hot and sour soup. Tom Kha Koong is coconut soup with shrimp. Moo = pork. Gai = chicken. Koong = shrimp. Talay = mixed seafood. Nuekua = beef.

When I got home, I put my essential soup ingredients in a freezer bag and stowed them away. I also picked up some bagged frozen wild-caught seafood mix and ordered a case of coconut milk from Azure  Standard. I was all set for my next cold.

Clockwise from upper left: mature and young galangal, baby bok chok, whole and chopped lemongrass, kaffir limes leaves, cilantro

What are those essentials? Kaffir lime leaves come from a lime tree that produces small limes with bumpy rinds. The rind and leaves are used in Indonesian, Thai, Laotian, Cambodian, and Phillipine cuisines. The leaves give the soup some of its sour flavor. Lemongrass is a fibrous stalk that also provide a lemony tang to the soup. Galangal is related to ginger and has a similar aroma, though with an added note of cedar and it does not have as peppery a flavor. Because of their fibrous nature, these ingredients are not usually consumed, but add to broth to flavor it. You can remove them before serving or just let those you are serving know not to eat them. Because they could be quite irritating to the gut, GAPSters might consider putting these in a loose bag made of cheese cloth, to fish out before serving.

I won’t claim that my Tom Kha is completely authentic. This is an emergency version that delivers the soothing, sinus-clearing hot-sour combo without a lot of fuss, for the ailing home cook or perhaps a partner who doesn’t do that much cooking. To be prepared for to make this soup whenever a cold strikes, keep on hand

  • galangal root, lemongrass, kaffir leaves, peas or mix vegetables, and bagged mix seafood or shrimp in the freezer;
  • dried mushrooms, fish or chicken stock, chili flakes, crispy peanuts, and coconut milk in the pantry;
  • ginger, lime juice and fish sauce in the fridge;
  • onions and garlic in storage.

Wild Caught Seafood Mix includes octopus, squid, pink shrimp, and mussels

Of course, if you happen to have the frozen or canned items fresh, that’s great, but this is for those times when you don’t and you’re feeling too lousy to go shopping. The soup pictured above has bok choy, for example, because I made it again this week, after I started feeling well enough to go shopping.

A note about fish sauce: I looked at over a dozen brands and the only one that did not list sugar as an ingredient was Gouramy Fish Brand.

Emergency Tom Kah Soup
Serves 4-6

1/2 cup dry mushrooms (shitake is what I used) or 1 cup of fresh
2 tablespoons coconut oil
1 onion, sliced
2 tablespoons minced ginger
2 tablespoons galangal root, sliced 1/8-inch thick
3 stalk lemongrass, outer leaves removed, sliced into inch-long pieces, and lightly crushed
4-5 kaffir lime leaves
1 quart fish or chicken stock
1 can 15-ounce can coconut milk
2-4 tablespoons lime juice
a pinch or more chile flakes (my kids don’t tolerate much heat, so I just start with a pinch and add chile sauce to my bowl)
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 pound of mixed seafood or shrimp, fresh or frozen
1 cup frozen peas or a couple baby bok choy, sliced
2-3 cloves garlic, minced

If you are using dried mushrooms, rehydrate them in a bowlful of boiling water. Save the liquid–you can add it to the soup or save it for another soup later. If you are using fresh mushroom, quarter them and put in a saucepan with enough water to cover by 1 inch. Simmer for about 5 minutes.

Melt coconut oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook until softened. Add the ginger and cook another minute, then add galangal, lemongrass, limes leaves and stock. Bring to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes. Add coconut milk, lime juice, chile flakes, and fish sauce. Gently simmer for a minute or two to allow flavors develop, then taste. Is it sour enough? Hot enough? Salty enough? Adjust seasoning as needed. Turn the heat up to medium-high again, add the seafood and simmer until the shrimp are opaque. Add the garlic, frozen vegetables and mushrooms and cook just until the vegetables are warmed through. Serve with crispy peanuts, fresh limes, sliced fresh chiles, and cilantro if you have those on hand. Otherwise, just slurp up that hot-sour goodness and feel better soon.



Chris Musser © 2011