Soup of the Gods.

You gotta try this soup.

I am so enamored of Thai coconut soup that I’m compelled to share it with you. Well, not literally: even if you were actually here with me, I might not offer you any because that will leave more for me. What I mean is that, in an Alaina Mabaso’s Blog first, I’d like to share a recipe with you, in deference to the whole “teach a man to fish” principle.

I already fear that I may deviate somewhat from the strict content of the recipe, so I apologize in advance.  Sometimes there is more to be gleaned from recipes than just the instructions.

First maybe I should explain my homemade soup obsession. I adore soup. Unfortunately, I am also allergic to monosodium glutamate, which gives me horrendous headaches. This means that approximately 99.5% of all pre-packaged soups on the market are lost to me (food companies, having wised up to the anti-MSG backlash, now label MSG under a plethora of different names, usually “autolyzed” something-or-other).

The ordering of soup from restaurants is also fraught with danger for me. Soups generally have many ingredients and there’s no telling what’s going to be mixed up in there: any kind of pepper, Old Bay and cilantro are just a few of the ingredients I can’t stomach. This means that if I want soup, I have to make it myself. And the soup I most often want is Tom Ka Gai, a Thai coconut dish. Made right, this thin, creamy soup packs a riot of rich, salty-sweet flavor laced with the bright sourness of lime.

You will need:

Chicken stock
Kaffir Lime Leaves
Coconut Milk
Lime Juice
Brown Sugar
Fish Sauce

My most recent spasm of Tom Ka Gai goodness was a few weeks ago, when I determined that I would bring my signature Tom Ka Gai for a special family potluck dinner.

In this case, imagine that you decided to make the soup, and then promptly forgot until the night before the dinner, when you got home exhausted at about 11pm, having had no time for dinner. Naturally, you break down and order a wonton and cashew-chicken extravaganza from your favorite MSG-free Chinese place. See how your goldfish fry like the wonton.

They’re going to town!

Then remember the soup.

The soup itself isn’t too time-consuming, but to make soup right, you’ve got to start with the broth. Many people have forgotten that broth does not naturally come from boxes at the supermarket. Fortunately, you have yesterday’s roasted chicken in the fridge. Pick most of the meat off and save it for other meals. Put the carcass into a large pot. Add a few peeled and chopped carrots and an onion, a few cloves of garlic, plenty of salt, fresh rosemary, basil and sage, and a good squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Cover it all with water and turn up the heat. When the water boils, skim off some of the gross brownish foam that rises to the surface. Reduce the heat to low, put a lid on the pot, and then go to bed.

If you like something else in your chicken broth, by all means throw it in.

When you wake up eight hours later, your apartment will be a wonderland of roasted chicken aromas. Separate the broth from everything else in the pot. Use whatever ladles, strainers or colanders you’ve got. You’re smart, you can figure it out.

This is how I do it.

Many recipes advise you to let the broth cool for awhile, and then skim off the fat to discard it. That’s a load of crap. Let the fat be, it makes a nice tasty broth. Lay off the aspartame-sweetened coffee, the Special-K bars, and the 100-calorie cookie packs and eat some real food, it’ll do you good.

(Let me say here that last year I made my soup and invited a friend over for lunch.  She wanted to know how I made it. A few weeks ago, when I was out to dinner with her and her fiancé, he leaned over the table to me. “You’re the one who taught her make that soup?” he asked. I said I was. “Thank you,” he said.)

Lemongrass, galangal and lime leaves. You may have a sexier chopping block than this one.

Now you’re ready to make the soup. Peel and chop a hunk of galangal.   No, don’t use ginger just because it looks similar.Never mind the employees at the Thai grocery stand who make fun of the way you pronounce “galangal”. Chop two stalks of lemongrass into several pieces. Put three cups of your broth into a saucepan, and add the galangal, lemongrass and four kaffir lime leaves.

Bring the pot to a boil. Once it does, put a lid on the pot, turn the heat down to low and simmer for five minutes. Then, take it off the heat and let it all sit for at least ten minutes. Strain the galangal, lemon grass and lime leaves out. Sniff deeply at the broth and go into quiet ecstasy over the developing aroma. Toss in a generous handful of chopped mushrooms. I usually put in whatever I have on hand, often regular white mushrooms. Bring the soup back to boiling and then simmer for a few minutes, until the mushrooms are cooked. Then, stir in one cup of coconut milk, four teaspoons of fresh lime juice and one teaspoon of brown sugar. Add four teaspoons of fish sauce.

None of my fish were harmed in the making of this fish sauce.

IMPORTANT: Don’t taste or even sniff the fish sauce on its own.  No, seriously, do not do it. You’ll only gross yourself out. Just hold your breath, add it to the pot, and trust that in combination with everything else, it’s bringing a luxurious salty depth to your soup.

If you want to add some additional lemongrass or lime leaves to the soup as a garnish, feel free, but I generally find these to be impediments to the slurping.

In Thai restaurants, I’ve had the soup with red pepper slices (enhancing my commitment to making it at home), cilantro (striking horror into my picky little heart), stewed cabbage (adding marvelous texture and absorbing the soup’s sweetness beautifully), sliced chicken (delicious) and shrimp (out of this world). I encourage any and all adaptations in your own kitchen – especially if you require a little spice.

Now that your soup is done, remember bitterly that you have made it not for your own consumption, but to share it with your extended family. Ultimately, though, their delight in the soup makes you feel good.

My cousin Ryan Tennis, a popular Philadelphia-based singer-songwriter. No, I’m not biased, he’s really good. And he likes my soup.

You may encounter challenges, however, from your notoriously hungry uncle, a lanky, affable man who seems to demolish plates of food for the entire duration of the gathering. If he announces that he wants to mix his portion of your coconut lime soup with your aunt’s peppery tomato, kale and bean stew, politely express your misgivings and then hand him the ladle.

My soup.
Aunt’s soup.







(I should be the last person on earth to cast aspersions on someone else’s offbeat food choices.)

Another aunt loves the soup so much that you give her a good portion of the leftovers (surely God notices acts like this). When she texts you the next day, you know you did the right thing.




Add yours →

  1. It does look and sounds incredible, apt description I’d say.

  2. I love Thai food, but where do you get the galangal, kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass?

    • I get it at a little Thai stand in Reading Terminal Market. They mostly sell Thai food to go (and the line is always epic at lunch time, which tells you something about the food), but you can also buy these fresh ingredients there.

  3. When am I getting more soup??

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