Lemongrass and Auntie Bang’s Coconut Soup (a.k.a. tom ka kai)

In April, I planted a tiny lemongrass specimen next to a smallish blueberry bush that I was trying to grow in a large concrete planter. The blueberry bush died, but the lemongrass thrived and has taken over the planter.

Earlier this month, when I decided to make tom ka kai, a Thai chicken coconut soup, I harvested some of that lemongrass with a spade and clippers.  I needed the roots for the soup, but the long, thin leaves could be dried for tea or possibly potpourri or other aromatherapy.

I didn’t know that lemongrass leaves are like tiny blades. At first, while I was hacking away at the roots, I felt vaguely itchy, like you do sometimes when working with plants outdoors. By the time I had extracted a nice section, my arms looked like I had bathed a feisty kitten.

I washed and rinsed my arms and rubbed them with lavender oil. They healed pretty quickly, but next time I’ll wear long sleeves. This experience made me wonder, as I often do when working with plants or animals that are difficult to convert into culinary dishes, how lemongrass was first identified and cultivated as food and medicine, as pesticide and preservative. How someone saw, instead of a sawgrass that would wound you, a tasty addition to soup or tea, or a preservative barrier to be rubbed on ancient scrolls.

My family’s go-to feel-good soup* is tom ka kai. My friend Samara shared a recipe she received from her sister-in-law, and I make it when my son or friends don’t feel well (a sick friend is what spurred me to make the last batch), for Thai themed dinner parties (served in tea cups with scoops of rice and a garnished with cilantro), for rainy Wednesday nights.

Here’s Auntie Bang’s Coconut Soup (with some of my own notes based on adaptations over the years). Note that most if not all of the ingredients can be found online or at Asian/Thai food stores.

1 can coconut milk (regular, not the “lite” kind, and Auntie Bang recommends the Chaokoh brand)

3 1/2 cups water

3 1/2 cups chicken broth (veggie broth works as well if keeping this vegetarian)

2 tsp chili paste with soya bean oil (Auntie Bang recommends Panai Norasingh brand, but I’ve found other versions work quite well as long as you know what kind of heat you’re dealing with. I once had to throw out a whole batch of broth because the two heaping teaspoons of hot Thai fried chili paste I substituted rendered the dish too spicy for anyone who was not a Thai national.)

1 tbsp thinly sliced galangal root

1/4 cup sliced lemongrass root

1 tbsp sliced fresh (not pickled) ginger root (This is one of my additions because it’s tasty, adds a sort of freshness, and is good for fighting infection.)

3 kaffir lime leaves, torn into pieces (Kaffir lime leaves have a curious double leaf structure, so I don’t really know if three leaves means three double leaves which is more like six leaves or  if this means three single leaf shapes. I go with three double leaves.)

2 tsp sugar

2 tsp lime juice (This goes in at the end. I’m telling you now since I always forget and put it in too soon. In fact, I no longer add the lime juice to the soup but rather serve each bowl with a wedge of lime to be squeezed over the soup just before eating.)

2 tbsp fish sauce (This actually smells terrible, and if you have cats you may find them swirling around your ankles when you work with fish sauce, but trust me, this is an umami that makes this dish. However, it technically makes is not vegan/vegetarian, so you may try soy or Worcestershire sauce instead if you are trying to keep it totally animal free.**)

10 white mushrooms, thinly sliced (or those cute tiny whole mushrooms, or really any kind that look good in the store)

1 block firm tofu, cut into small cubes (Auntie Bang recommends Mori-Nu Silken brand) OR 1 to 2 cups thinly sliced chicken breast

2 cups cooked jasmine rice

Chopped fresh cilantro for garnish (optional)

Chili-garlic paste for additional heat (optional)

Lime wedges for garnish (see note next to lime juice ingredient above)

Cheat/hack:  Swanson now makes this Thai Ginger flavor infused broth that allows you to skip all of the main broth ingredients except the coconut milk, mushrooms, and chicken or tofu. You may still want the cilantro and lime for garnish. It’s not as good as homemade, but it’s pretty tasty in a pinch. The broth is vegan but not gluten free.

Bring water, chicken or veggie broth, lemongrass, galangal, lime leaves, ginger, and chili paste to a boil. Remember to test that chili paste for spiciness — some spice can be added by individuals when serving if you like a milder soup. Simmer for 30 minutes to allow the herbs to release their flavors.

Remove the herbs with a slotted spoon or pour through a colander (preserving the broth, of course). Discard the herbs. Add sugar, fish sauce or fish sauce substitute, mushrooms, chicken (if using, but if using tofu wait until later), and coconut milk. Stir and simmer until all ingredients are incorporated and chicken has cooked through. If not using chicken, just simmer for 2-3 minutes then add tofu. If you want to add lime juice instead of serving with lime wedges (a perfectly acceptable alternative if you only have bottled juice on hand), add that as well at this point.

Scoop about 1/4 cup of rice into bowls and ladle soup over the rice. Garnish with cilantro and lime wedges if desired.

*My go-to feel-good soup was Campbell’s chicken noodle in a can. I would pour off half the broth in the can, refill with water, heat on the oven (not in the microwave), and eat it with saltines. I had a different palate as a child than my own children.

**One time I made a big batch of tom ka kai to take to a friend in the hospital. I intended to make it vegan because she was trying to stick to a plant-based diet through chemotherapy and because it really is quite delicious made that way. Two other friends were meeting us at the hospital, but I forgot about the fish sauce actually having fermented fish in it. I texted them — bringing tom ka kai, vegan, except for fish sauce. And it was a great batch, fresh, hot, tasty. The jasmine rice had turned out perfect. And while we served it up in the hospital room, one friend (not the one in chemo) realized it had fish sauce in it (because I told her it did). She is a strict vegetarian, but I’ve seen her eat this soup at our favorite Thai restaurant, as well as refried beans in Mexican restaurants, so I know sometimes animal products could slip into her otherwise vigilantly vegetarian diet. She declined the soup (one of her favorites) to get a wilted garden salad from the hospital cafeteria. I don’t know why this frustrated me so since of course I respected her dietary choices, but I think it was the way she plowed through her salad with sidelong glances at the soup that we all slurped. Or I felt guilty for eating fish, even though I was pescatarian at the time.


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