Monday, May 2, 2011

Here Comes the Rain Again: Tom Kha Gai

(Thanks for all of your kind, supportive comments on my last post.  I took a deep breath when I hit "publish," and worried that I'd lose all of my followers ... I'm glad that didn't happen!  And now for something completely different ...)

Of all of the things that have taken a back seat in my life these past few years, I miss traveling the most.  As summer approaches, I start to dream about places I'd like to go, perhaps because that was when my family traveled when I was growing up.  I love experiencing new cultures that make me think differently about my own: I've been to South Africa on a study tour of post-apartheid education; I've gone to Brazil with students presenting their undergraduate research at five campuses of the University of Sao Paolo, I have family I've visited in Spain and Puerto Rico, I've biked through Umbria in Italy.  And in all of these places, I've eaten well, mostly because I make an effort to stay with (or at least talk to) locals.

The year after we were married, my husband and I decided to travel to Thailand.  I'd never been to Asia, and I wanted to go before we started trying to have a family, and S. agreed.  We settled on a two week block in July, and started making plans.

The trip was amazing; it was the first time I'd experienced being illiterate, being unable to speak or read anything, even street signs.  It gave me a perspective I'd never had before, and made me completely dependent upon other people.  But in case you've never been to Thailand in July, there's something important you need to know: it's wet.  Monsoons?  Are no joke, my friend.  We're talking wall of water, advancing across the landscape, drenching everything in its path.  You might as well go scuba diving, without the mask.  Being silly Americans, we didn't think this would really be a big deal, until we arrived, and found ourselves wringing our clothes out to dry on an hourly basis.  You haven't lived until you've ridden on top of an elephant in a basket of sloshing water, as it crosses a raging river in the pouring rain.

One of my most vivid memories from that damp week was a cooking class we took with a woman named Apple, who runs Apple's Guest House.  We'd spent the morning at the market, learning about and purchasing ingredients, and were going to spend the afternoon cooking.  I remember Apple as sort of a mix between someone's wide-grinned grandmother and a drill sergeant, barking orders at us as the flames leapt under our woks.  Like every other day, it rained that afternoon, and her instructional kitchen wasn't yet finished ... it was missing a wall.  Important detail when you're dealing with monsoons, na?  The rain pounded on the corrugated metal roof, making a deafening sound as we tried to scribble down and follow Apple's directions.  It ran down on the slant, creating a waterfall that ended in a growing puddle in the kitchen.  Soon we were cooking in ankle-deep water.

We made Pad Thai, Green Curry, Chicken with Cashews, and Tom Kha Gai that day, and I still have the recipes I scribbled down, though I've altered them a bit to reflect availability of ingredients here and our own taste preferences.  I pull them out every once in a while on rainy spring and summer days, thinking fondly of the adventure, and hoping that some day I will travel again, with my children, testing their assumptions and mine, and eating well.  For now, reading blogs will do.

Tom Kha Gai

1 stalk lemongrass, diagonal cut 1 1/2"
4 slices galanga (or ginger)
4 keffir lime leaves (or grated zest of 1/2 lime)
2-3 mushrooms, quartered
1/2 c. water (or 1/4 c. lime juice and 1/4 c. water)
14 oz. can coconut milk
pinch salt
1/2 lb. chicken or extra firm tofu
1 T. fish sauce
1/2 t. sugar
2 c. water

Boil 1/2 c. water (or water and lime juice) in a wok with lemongrass, galanga/ginger, lime leaves (or zest), stirring constantly.

When boiling well, add 1/2 can of coconut milk, mushrooms, and salt, and continue to stir.  Bring to a boil.

Add the second half of the coconut milk and boil for 2-3 minutes without stirring.  When boiling well, add the chicken/tofu and cook the chicken thoroughly.

Add fish sauce and sugar and boil for 2-3 more minutes.  Add the extra water to make it your preferred consistency for soup (it should not be too thick).  Remove from heat and let sit 2 minutes.

Add to your taste: a splash of lemon juice, 2 small ground chiles, fish sauce, more sugar, etc.
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  1. It's ironic that I've found so many wonderful blogs through IF even though I never had to endure the pain of it and because of that, I rarely leave comments when the subject is broached. Still, when I read your "fear" that you'd lose readership over you "last post" I had to go back and refresh my memory.
    It says a great deal that you would think anyone could make a decision about what you do here because of something you did not cause and could not alter. I wrote one single post about IF months ago and while I won't bring it up again because I am truly unqualified to speak to that kind of pain, I wish you'd read it, internalize it and give it to the women who do know because they have suffered.
    It's here

  2. love asian food! & anything with coconut milk in it is ok by me. :) this sounds delicious, although i'm wondering what would be a good subsitute for fish sauce? soy maybe? (food allergies for one of the kiddos means we had to toss our fish sauce, alas!)

    so glad you found support in the blogging community. as shockingly awful as people can be, sometimes they can be just as shockingly compassionate.

  3. Yum. My husband and I both have spent time in Thailand. When we were first moved in together, we were merging our stuff and found out we had the same little Thai cookbook which we both got at our cooking class AT THE SAME PLACE in Chang Mai. That was funny. R was there about 2 years before me and took the class. Funny our paths had crossed before (kind of)

  4. Hopefully my comment will post; I've been having such problems with Blogspot blogs lately. But I've missed commenting.

    I love Tom Kha Gai - it's also wonderful if you leave out the gai and used small, firm mushrooms instead. Soooo yum!

  5. I love this story and I love this dish! thanks so much for sharing it -- i am definitely going to try it.

  6. Wonderful story and wonderful adventures. I miss travelling too. I'm planning a trip this November as I've earned it and deserve it. I'm also very fond of Asian cooking and this recipe is another on the list.

  7. My brother just moved to Thailand a couple of weeks ago. He spent time there as an exchange student in high school and went back several times after and now he's officially working there. He absolutely loves it, but things like the water, heat, and bugs do make his life interesting.

  8. Mmmmm... I can't decide which sounds more delicious: your trip or the soup. And I think your cooking class sounds particularly badass. :) Several years ago N and I explored planning a trip to Thailand, but we couldn't bring ourselves to spend the $ for the flight--so darn expensive! We ended up going to Ireland that year--not an especially exotic place in terms of food. I am always let down by my attempts at Thai food, especially curries with coconut milk. I just can't get them right.


  9. You've taken some amazing trips! I'd love to visit Brazil and Thailand. When you travel, it's important to have a sense of humour - you never know what's going to happen!

  10. Mmm, that looks delicious lady! Hope you have an awesome Mother's Day!!

  11. Everyone should travel to a place where they can't understand, read, orient themselves. It's a humbling experience and it makes you look at yourself in a very different - and valuable - way.

    That soup looks divine. (It's one of my favorite soups. And I am something of a soup fiend).


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