Tom kha phak – Vegetarian Thai coconut soup
In this first full spring week, my appetite has immediately shifted towards fresh and light flavours and this coconut soup is the perfect answer. Combining some classic Thai ingredients, it’s sweet, sour, savoury and spicy all at once. Better still, this fresh and full-flavoured wonder is up and ready in under 20 minutes.
After not having cooked Thai food in years, making this soup has been a bit of a nostalgic trip for me, because the first dish I ever successfully cooked on my own was a Thai green curry. With beautiful ingredients like this, you just can’t go wrong, was a lesson I learned that day. Up till then, I have to admit, I was a crappy cook. My father was a great, French trained cook, but when he died at a young age, he had only had the opportunity to teach his reluctant teenage daughter the absolute basics. Due to my reluctance, my cooking skills were limited to fried egg level when I moved out. I remember being approached by a worried roommate asking me if I was okay, because he had been observing me for a while now and according to him, one could only live on canned soup for so long.
Fortunately, I found out that a casual dinner invitation was the perfect opportunity to get closer acquainted with attractive boys. I started practising my cooking skills, bought my very first cookbook and let loose this Thai green curry on an unsuspecting fellow student. The look of sheer surprise on his face still makes me smile, when the onset of his polite compliment after the first bite suddenly shifted to: “This is actually really good!”, after which he confessed that the previous two dinners I had made him had tasted just afwul.
I didn’t end up with this nice and patient guy, but with an even nicer man, who won me over by cooking me delicious Indian food. We’ve been happily cooking and learning ever since, but I think my passion for cooking started at the surprised “Yum!!” over this Thai curry.
Back to the soup. It’s an adaptation of the more well-known Tom kha gai, the classic Thai coconut soup made with chicken stock and chicken meat. It’s not the chicken which defines it, though; surprisingly enough it’s the galangal. As I understand, the kha in the name means galangal, whereas tom means “boiled” and is often used to describe soup in general.
Apparently, tom kha implies the combination of coconut milk, galangal and lemongrass and starting from there, you can choose to add the things you like. Tom kha gai then means something like “chicken galangal and coconut soup”, while tom kha goong would refer to “shrimp galangal and coconut soup”. I replaced the chicken with thin strips of tofu. I’ve been told that this turns it into tom kha phak, which I proudly put in the title. Googling around for confirmation, I started doubting myself a bit, though. Being linguistically interested but totally incapable of speaking Thai, I might have unintentionally called my soup “galangal and coconut soup with just veggies” or something far worse, using a word that isn’t even food-related. So, if someone Thai reads this, I’m ready to stand corrected!
Regardless of the name, the combination of flavours and textures is just wonderful. Untraditionally, I added udon noodles to make the soup more substantial and suitable as a main meal; if you leave the noodles out, the soup could serve as a light lunch or as part of a larger meal. A bowl of this fresh soup, with silky tofu, savoury mushrooms and loads of fresh herbs will leave you happy and satisfied. And if you’d like to use it as an excuse to get more closely acquainted with someone you fancy, trust me, this one will work.
Tom kha phak – vegetarian Thai coconut soup – serves 4
- 4 stalks lemongrass
- 2½ cm piece of galangal root, sliced
- 10 fresh kaffir lime leaves (see note below)
- 800 ml coconut milk
- 500 ml vegetable stock
- 200 g udon noodles
- 100 g shiitake or chestnut mushrooms, sliced
- 4 tbsp. lime juice
- 3 tbsp. tamari or regular soy sauce
- 300 g firm tofu, thinly sliced
Note on the ingredients:
Galangal or laos root looks similar to fresh ginger, but its flavour is a bit more sweet and peppery. You can find fresh galangal on Asian markets and lately it is slowly becoming more commonly available at regular supermarkets. Kaffir lime leaves are available fresh or frozen at Asian stores and some vegetable stores, sometimes under their Indonesian name djeruk purut.
Garnish the soup to taste with thinly sliced spring onion, red or green chiles, (Thai) basil, thin strips of kaffir lime leaves, lime wedges, coriander leaves and freshly ground black pepper.
Make a few lengthwise cuts in the lemongrass stalks, but leave the bases intact. Pound the lemongrass and the pieces of galangal with a pestle, to make them release their flavour even more. Tear the kaffir lime leaves in several places up to their primary vein.
In a medium-sized pan, bring the coconut milk and the vegetable stock to a very gentle simmer, together with the lemongrass, the galangal and the kaffir lime leaves. On a low heat, leave the soup to infuse for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, cook the noodles according to the instructions on the package.
In a frying pan, heat 2 tablespoons of oil. Add the shiitake or chestnut mushroom slices and fry them until golden brown on each side. Leave the slices to drain on a piece of kitchen paper.
At the end of the cooking time, lift the solid ingredients out of the soup using a slotted spoon, or strain the soup through a sieve into another pan. Stir the lime juice and tamari into the soup.
Divide the noodles over 4 bowls. Pour over the coconut soup, then add the sliced tofu and the fried mushrooms.
Garnish to taste with thinly sliced spring onion, red or green chiles, (Thai) basil, thin strips of kaffir lime leaves, lime wedges, coriander leaves and freshly ground black pepper.