I’m starting to understand how our parents and grandparents end up with “their stories,” the ones they tell over and over, to the point where if they skip a step you chime in with, “Nuh-uh! That happened after you said you’d go to the dance with him!”
It’s not that your life isn’t FULL of funny stories—it’s just that some of them stick with you in a way that the others don’t.
I can already tell that if I live another 50 years, I’ll still be telling stories from my summer in Belfast. Not only was it my first experience working in a professional kitchen, but it was also my first chance to really get to know a whole branch of my family.
On top of that, it was hilarious. Listening to Irish people shout obscenities in a thick East Belfast accent and catching every 3 words is pretty memorable, especially if they’re shouting at you and you’re a 23-year-old from Texas pretending to understand.
And the smell of this soup is something that will always bring me back to that kitchen.
At the restaurant, we used to make what we called Coconut Galangal Chowder. In Thai, it’s known as Tom Kha Gai, and translates to something like “chicken galangal soup.” (Galangal is a spicy root in the ginger family with a way better name. Like when one kid gets to be something cool and unusual, like Maximus, and the other one is John. Sorry, Johns.)
To make the soup, we started in the morning by simmering down a fragrant broth of galangal, lemongrass, garlic, peppercorns, and more. When we got an order, we heated it up with tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms, scallions, and a handful of fish and shellfish leftover from when the chef portioned the filets. At the last minute, we’d douse it with a sour splash of lime-fish sauce.
I used what felt like a thousand tiny sauce pots to heat the soups to order, sprinting between the hot and cold sections of the kitchen, and I used another thousand spoons to taste each bowl so the balance between the sweet coconut and acidic lime-fish sauce was just right.
The soup was a favorite for a reason. The coconut hits you first, then the bite of the lime, and the spicy ginger base makes the chowder warming but not heavy. With a few toppings, it makes for an impressive starter, and with rice noodles and extra toppings added, it’s a steamy main dish for a cold night.
Now, I’ve replicated this soup before (on my old blog! when I still ate animal!), but I hadn’t touched it since going vegan last August. This time, when I cracked open my old kitchen notebook (and a shower of bandaids fell to my feet), I set about translating a recipe for 30 servings, in metric, into a totally vegan version for 4. Luckily, the recipe is forgiving!
Instead of galangal, I swapped in regular old fresh ginger, and I also used vegetable stock instead of chicken. To replace the lime-fish sauce, I simply added soy sauce and fresh-squeezed lime juice to the finished soup. Rather than tossing in prawns and scallops, I stuck to fresh vegetables, although cubed tofu would be delicious too!
And—this might be controversial—I threw in a few spoonfuls of curry paste to deepen the flavor in the absence of the traditional chicken stock and fishy elements. Don’t tell the Tom Kha Gai police.
This recipe serves 2 as a main dish (in an enormous, ramen-sized bowl, with lots of toppings), or 4 as a starter.
Note: The recipe calls for some special equipment—a food processor and a fine mesh strainer. You can chop by hand rather than using the food processor, but you’ll need a fine strainer to get the smooth consistency the soup is known for.
- 1 Tablespoons coconut oil
- 10 slices fresh, peeled ginger (or a knob the size of a golf ball)
- 1 clove garlic
- ¼ white onion (about ¼ cup)
- 1 stalk lemongrass (about the size of one of those pirouette cookies from Pepperidge Farm)
- 10 whole peppercorns
- 2 Tablespoons curry paste
- 4 cups vegetable stock
- 1 15 oz. can full-fat coconut milk
- 2 shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, sliced paper-thin
- 2 small tomatoes, diced
- 2 cups chopped Swiss chard, sliced thin
- Juice of 2 limes
- 4 teaspoons soy sauce (more if your curry paste and vegetable stock were unsalted!)
- Optional: vermicelli rice noodles, cooked according to package directions
- Optional: fresh cilantro and sliced scallions
- In a food processor, combine ginger, garlic, onion, and lemongrass, and pulse until all the pieces are about the size of the peppercorns.
- In a 2-quart soup pot, heat the coconut oil over medium to medium-high heat, and add the ginger mixture and peppercorns to the pot and sauté until very fragrant, 3-5 minutes. Do not let it brown or burn.
- Add the curry paste and sauté until fragrant, 1-2 minutes.
- Add the vegetable stock and bring to a simmer. Cook until soup has reduced by about 30%. Check this by looking at the rings on the pot, or simply reduce for 15 minutes and don’t worry too much about it.
- At this point, cook your rice noodles (if using), chop all your vegetables, and prepare garnishes.
- When the soup is reduced, strain through a fine mesh sieve into a large bowl. Rinse out the pot and wipe with a towel to remove any residue.
- Add the soup back to the pot and return to a simmer. Add the coconut milk and return to a very low simmer, but don’t boil.
- To serve, divide the mushrooms, tomatoes, Swiss chard, and noodles (optional) to each bowl, then top with the hot soup. Flavor each bowl with lime and soy sauce, to taste. Top with cilantro and scallions, if using.
- (Alternately, if serving the whole pot of soup at once, flavor the soup in the pot with the lime and soy sauce, starting with half of what the recipe calls for and adding the rest to taste.)
- To store, keep the broth, toppings, lime, and soy sauce in separate containers in the refrigerator.
The Waco Vegan is no longer updated. You can find me over at RandleBrowning.com instead.