May 2, 2005
Tom Kha Tofu - Thai Coconut Citrus Soup

Penny's Noodles in Chicago serves good sorta-Thai food fast. The noodle dishes are certainly not 100% authentic, but they are very tasty. One dish they make that I used to love is a citrusy spicy coconut milk based soup known as tom kha kai.

Unfortunately the "kai" in tom kha kai means chicken, so since my conversion to vegetarianism I've been tom kha kai deprived.

I am deprived no more. This last week, I took advantage of the ethnic groceries in my new neighborhood and put together a reasonable vegetarian facsimile of the tom kha kai with tofu instead of chicken.

Now I'll admit the recipe for this soup may be a little bit rough. I didn't do a whole lot of measuring, preferring to work by taste, so many of my measures here are guesses as to what went in the pot. Give the recipe as written a try, but don't be afraid to add a little more of this, or a little less of that. You won't hurt my feelings.

If you're not vegetarian and you've never had tom kha kai, go out and get a bowl tonight. Go! In my opinion, it's one of the world's great soups, up there with mulligatawny, leek-potato soup, and gazpacho.

Ideally, you should use that wonderful red Thai chili sauce that comes in a bottle with a rooster on the side. I did not have any on hand when I made this batch, so I used chili pepper and tabasco. In any case, the heat should come on slowly as you eat the soup, at first almost imperceptable, until by the end of the bowl your mouth has a continuous pleasant mild spicy sting going.

Tom Kha Tofu - Thai Coconut Citrus Soup
For tofu:
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup Chinese black vinegar (or use an Asian fish sauce)
1/4 cup nutritional yeast
3 tablespoons sesame oil

For broth:
1 quart vegetable stock
2 14 oz. cans coconut milk
3 cloves finely minced garlic
1/2 cup lime juice
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 pound tofu - not silky, but the kind in the container filled with water
1/3 cup thinly sliced galanga root (or substitute ginger), bruised
2 lemon grass stalks, trimmed and cut into 3-4" lengths.
1/4 cup fish sauce
2 tablespoons cayenne/red chili powder or to taste
2 tablespoons tabasco or to taste
2 tablespoon mustard powder
2 tablespoon onion powder
1/4 cup bruised kaffir lime leaves or 1 tablespoon grated lime zest
black pepper to taste (I doubt you'll want salt)

1 cup fresh cilantro leaves, no stalks
12 oz. straw mushrooms (I can only ever find these canned)

ideally two thinly sliced Thai red peppers should also go in the soup

Press the block of tofu under a weight between folded up paper towels to extract water from the tofu for 20 minutes.

Cut the tofu into 1/2"-3/4" cubes. In a container with a lid or a big sealing plastic bag, add the soy sauce, black vinegar, sesame oil, nutritional yeast (different from baking yeast - you can find it in a health food store) and the tofu. Shake the container up to coat the tofu and let it sit for ten minutes. Preheat your over to 350 F

Spread the tofu cubes out in a single layer on a baking sheet and put into the preheated 350 F oven for fifteen minutes.

While the tofu is cooking, combine all the other ingredients except the mushrooms and cilantro together, stirring well. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer.

After the tofu has been in the oven for fifteen minutes, take it out, flip the cubes and put the tray back in the oven.

Taste the soup. The lemongrass and galanga/ginger flavors will be developing, but test the balance between the veg/coconut milk and the citrus. If the soup feels too bland, add more lime juice and/or spicy stuff. If it tastes too spicy - well, tom kha tofu ain't beanball.

After the tofu has been in the oven for a total of thirty minutes, take the tray out of the oven and add the tofu, mushrooms and cilantro. Cook until the mushrooms are warmed through and the cilantro has wilted.

Eating the soup is interesting. You can't really eat the woody lemongrass and galanga root or the waxy kaffir lime leaves (certainly not in large quantities) , but they do add flavor in the pot. You can either strain the soup before adding the cilantro, mushrooms, and tofu, or you can deal with having a little pile of debris at the bottom of your soup bowl. I've always had it with debris at Thai restaurants, but your kitchen, your rules.

Serve with coconut rice and a Thai iced tea.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at May 2, 2005 7:17 AM | TrackBack Print-friendly version

Where did you get galanga root? We've been meaning to make this soup as well, and our half-hearted search for galanga is so far fruitless (leafless?).

Posted by Seth Anderson on May 2, 2005 at 9:23 AM

This particular time, I found galanga thinly sliced and frozen in a small Thai supermarket in Chicago on Kedzie near the Brown Line stop, but in the past, I have found it consistently fresh in the Asian markets on Argyle.

I'm not sure where you are, but you might try the Chinatown area (or better, the Little Saigon area if you have one) in your town.

Posted by barrett on May 2, 2005 at 10:07 AM

Oh hey, Seth I see you're in Chicago. Go to the Kedzie stop of the Brown line and walk across the street to the building at the northeast side of the crossing. The building always looks like it's closed, but if you go to the north side of the building there's a door you can go in.

A nice Thai couple run the place and if you ask, she'll get you kaffir lime leaves, galanga, and lemongrass.

Posted by barrett on May 2, 2005 at 10:13 AM

Barrett's got some gunga-galanga. So, he's got that going for him... Which is nice.

I have to confess that I fall directly on the hate coconut side of the street, but the other ingredients sound pretty dang good. Was it better with chicken in the old days? Or did the tofu really substitute well? That's for us non-veggies out there.

Posted by Bryan on May 2, 2005 at 10:20 AM

The chicken was always very nice, but I liked the tofu. It's hard for me to judge because I don't think chicken smells good anymore.

Probably it'd be better with chicken for you chicken eaters and better with tofu for us tofu-eaters.

Posted by barrett on May 2, 2005 at 10:29 AM

I love Tom Kha Kai - it's my test dish to determine if a Thai restaurant is worth visiting a second time. When make it at home, I use a little mesh string bag to contain the inedible bits. Barrett, I think I bought the package of them at Sherwyn's on Belmont.

Posted by Meg in Paris on May 2, 2005 at 12:56 PM

A package of inedible bits? How much does that go for? I think I can get some of that off the living room carpet if I need to, but if it's a special kind, I'll pony up.

I'm glad you pointed out the strainer part again. I would probably have left them in. That would have detracted from the experience, I imagine.

Posted by Bryan on May 2, 2005 at 2:55 PM

I'm with Meg--that is the dish that I judge Thai restaurants by.

I love to make it, too!

Posted by Barbara on May 2, 2005 at 5:59 PM

Wow. This is cruel! Mentioning Penny's. One of my favorite lunch spots when I lived in Chicago. I described it to others as Americanized Noodle Thai. Now if you can come up with Chicken Lad Nar that's anywhere near Penny's I'll be in heaven.

Walking home from my office at Sheffield and Belmont to my house on Eddy took me right by Penny's. Having some Lad Nar and Pad Se Eu under my arm when I got home was common.

I've got to go find the stuff to make this soup now. THANKS!

Posted by on May 2, 2005 at 6:40 PM

Thanks for the advice on where to score. I'll check it out, because now I am really craving some nourishing Tom Kha Kai (not from Penny's, but that's just me).
I also don't recall seeing anything at Sherwyn's, but I could be blinded by the vitamins or something.

Posted by Seth Anderson on May 3, 2005 at 7:43 PM

Seth, combine the trip for the galanga on Kedzie with a meal at one of the Lebanese/Persian restaurants in the area. I had the best baba ghanoush I've ever had at a place just north of the stop on the west side of the street.

Posted by barrett on May 4, 2005 at 9:35 AM

We went to a Thai place for lunch today and I have to say they failed on the Tom Kha Kai test. (I knew not to order when they said it was mild enough for my 11 year old English stepdaughter to eat...) However there was an intriguing ingredient in the green curry (very good) that I have never seen before: about the size of a large cherry tomato, cream/white/light green colored and with the texture of a fig. It had a slightly nutty flavor, not sweet like a fig. Can anyone enlighten me as to what on earth it was?

Posted by Meg in Paris on May 7, 2005 at 3:30 PM

Meg is it at all possible that was a little Thai eggplant? They come in green and white and have that heavily seeded fig aspect.

Posted by barrett on May 9, 2005 at 11:31 AM

Thanks for the recipe - I actually used my own recipe (similar, but with ginger, shallot, and 2 dried-deseeded red peppers and a little less prep without the garlic&mustard) but I was looking for info on how to cook the tofu for this soup since I'm not vegetarian (but a friend of mine is). I ended up baking the tofu for 15 minutes and then fried the tofu for a minute with the ginger and shallot (the way I would have fried the chicken) and it worked well. Thanks again!

Posted by Scott on June 15, 2009 at 10:39 PM
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