I am a girl with humble requests, but specific taste.
When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I wavered between wanting to be a hybrid of a prolific doctor and Mother Theresa, or a bus driver. I figured my bus driver was actually pretty happy. “Saving the world” sounds awfully serious.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve forgotten about my “inner bus driver,” who is completely content to cruise around and enjoy the energy that comes with growth. The side of me that wants to save the world is more dangerous than she knows, and she’s been running my life for over a decade. It’s time to put her to rest.
I’m starting the journey of reconnecting with my inner happy bus driver, one interaction at a time. Yesterday, I interacted with a very dear friend, and some “foreign” ingredients. Yesterday, my friend and I set out to tackle tom kha.
For those of you who don’t know, tom kha features a coconut milk-based broth which can house a litany of guests, from sliced chicken to mushrooms to tofu to seafood. It’s creamy and acidic, rich and refreshing, and so very flavorful; it’s one of my favorite ways to “judge” the quality of a Thai restaurant, because it just feels like the heart and soul of something deep and beautiful; if the soup is good, I will always go back.
My friend and I ventured into our local Asian market an hour before closing, peeking under rice bags laid out to preserve the freshness of the produce. Commendably not getting terribly side-tracked with all the eye-opening products in the store, we steered our white hands towards what we knew we needed, and asked for help when we knew we didn’t know what we needed. The cashier was very friendly, and something in his spirit made me want to bust out laughing. For some reason I didn’t, and for some reason I regret this. Was I afraid of making him laugh with me?
We purchased two flat-bottomed soup spoons and all the necessary ingredients, and prepared ourselves to Explore The Soup.
Back at A’s house, we chatted about feminism and witchcraft, balancing flavors and Dolly Parton. I minced the lemongrass stalks like a novice, enjoying the process of seeking the tender parts of a hearty stalk. I chopped ginger and galangal, and smelled the medicine inherent in the roots with each fresh cut. A. sautéed the shallot and baked the tofu, gently turning each cube over once its surface had browned. We threw the minced lemongrass, roots, and kefir lime leaves into the hot coconut oil, immediately drowning them in chicken stock and coconut milk. Left to simmer, an ethereal aroma of lime and coconut found its footing with hearty root vegetables and the bracing edge of chicken broth. In went the fish sauce, lime juice, mushrooms, Thai chilis and tofu. The soup bloomed effortlessly into existence.
Tom kha dreams were coming true before my very eyes. A. and I were necromancers, bringing some ancient force into the present with a few simple ingredients.
A. lit candles and we sat down to taste what we had created. Poured over a bed of rice, the balance of the broth was exquisite, the flavors clear, the tofu firm and the mushrooms perfectly cooked.
We agreed we’d done pretty well for having no clue what we were doing. We’d manifested the bones of a culinary idea: and now the world was open to how we would articulate and emphasize those bones.
We brainstormed ideas for new directions to take the soup. It called for some kind of base note flavor, perhaps something spicy or musky to give it more depth? The tom kha took up space in the room and became a canvas with infinite possibility. Could we take tom kha to India, and add garam marsala for a warming base note flavor? Could we bring it to the Mediterranean and add a bay leaf or two for a husky mid note? Could we change the ratio of coconut cream to chicken stock and therefore the fulcrum point of the flavor balance in the broth? Opportunities floated through the air. Tom kha became a creative collaborator, a benevolent force, a friendly clerk who will kindly tell you where to find the galangal and make you want to smile.
For dessert, A. uncovered a jar of black cardamom, freeing the pods from the shell and crushing them with a mortar and pestle. Inquisitively, we sprinkled some of the crushed spice on shards of dark chocolate and encountered a powerful piney, smoky taste. For “second course,” we ate salt on sour mango slices to open tastebuds to the possibility of sweetness.
The simple things can really change your perspective. It turns out, it doesn’t have to be all “saving the world;” sometimes wincing and laughing while eating a sour mango together is a transcendental experience. The pleasure of existence is a funny pursuit.
If you are interested in making tom kha, I recommend this recipe. My friend and I went a little rogue and added some chili oil and red curry paste for a touch of heat and color; but if you’re a sensitive to heat, you may want to leave that out. If you have the ability to make or buy a paste of the lemongrass, I recommend that for texture’s sake. Leave the skin on the galangal root for maximum flavor and benefit. And by all means, leave me a comment with any ideas you might have.
Enjoy the fuck out of it, connect with something ancient, lay curiosity in your lap like a napkin and examine your experience. And remember, a little black cardamom on a square of dark chocolate goes a long way.