This one goes out to everyone who ever brought food when the chips were down. I may have forgotten to write a note, given everything. I’m sure you were busy. It took forethought. You had to find that recipe, get groceries, and cook. Then you had to transport it all, which can be messy. You probably wondered if you’d ever get your Tupperware back. It was good of you.
Years ago, when my mother was dying, people brought food. There were casseroles and brownies, homegrown tomatoes and pots of soup. I was mystified. Did they really think we could eat, at a time like that? Well, yes. They knew we could. Everyone eventually does, inconceivable as it seems. I felt like a traitor, eating while my irrepressible mother was slipping away. But she would’ve rolled her eyes at that sentiment, and reminded me that life is hard enough without my efforts to make it harder.
Years later, my husband and I welcomed a son. Dinner came to our doorstep every night for weeks, courtesy of friends and neighbors. I wept with thankfulness. I wept a lot in those days, but that’s another story. I can still taste those meals, seasoned as they were with naked gratitude. I missed my Mom. I needed help. And help arrived, wrapped in tinfoil and kindness.
Birth and death are demanding. They just swoop right and in and put their feet up, blithely flicking away the orderly unfolding of our days. We are tender and tired as we attend our loved ones at the beginning and the end. We sing and stroke. We wash and feed. The clock ceases to provide useful information. These are the rhythms of lives, not days. In the midst of these marathons of nurture, gifts of food stand in simple relief. Meals arrive like little missives from the world where the clock still applies, like souvenirs of simpler times. It’s hard to remember simpler times when you’re in the thick of life’s seismic upheavals. Food gives strength, and comfort.
A family friend dropped this soup by for me and my stepfather when my mom was sick. We were dazed by the unfolding loss. My memories of that time are foggy, but I recall thinking this soup was the most delicious thing I ever tasted. I wouldn’t have thought it possible to even notice a bowl of soup just then, never mind enjoy it. But I savored every bite. It served to remind me that a world outside of sorrow still existed. Life would be there, with all its flavors and delights, when the time came to gather up the fragments of my broken heart and look forward again.
To this day, the complicated interplay of flavors in Tom Kha Gai puts me in mind of nurture, solace, and motherhood. When I know someone with a new baby, or an illness, or a death in the family, this is the dish I most often bring. I pass it on with thanks, for all the grace and sustenance.
I get a lot of requests for this recipe, which is the true measure of any dish’s popularity, if you ask me. This soup somehow manages to be feisty and harmonious at the same time. It’s interesting enough to impress foodie types, but simple and comforting enough to appeal to less adventurous eaters. (You might need to explain to the aforementioned “less adventurous eaters” that the big stalks of lemongrass and discs of ginger floating around in the soup aren’t meant to be eaten. They”re just adding flavor.) Sometimes I throw in cooked basmati rice at the end. That may be some kind of Thai-food no-no, but I find chicken and rice a soothing combination.
THAI CHICKEN AND COCONUT SOUP (TOM KHA GAI)
makes four generous servings
1 stalk lemongrass (Available at most grocery stores these days.)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium onion, diced small
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon Thai red curry paste (Also available at most groceries.)
6 quarter-inch wide slices fresh ginger
3 kaffir lime leaves (Not available at most groceries. I usually substitute ½ teaspoon grated lime peel.)
4 cups chicken stock
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast, sliced with the grain into quarter-inch wide strips.
2 cups shitake mushrooms, stemmed, caps quartered
1 14-ounce can coconut milk (Don’t use low-fat. Trust me. I tried it.)
Juice of two limes (about five tablespoons)
2 tablespoons nam pla (AKA fish sauce, also available in most groceries these days.)
3 green onions, trimmed and sliced into ¼ inch pieces
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
Trim lemongrass, cut into three pieces about four inches long. Whack the pieces with the flat side of your knife blade to crush slightly.
Heat oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat.
Saute onion and garlic for about two minutes.
Add lemongrass, curry paste, ginger discs, and lime leaf (or peel). Cook, stirring, for three minutes.
Add stock. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes.
Add coconut milk, chopped chicken and quartered mushroom caps. Cook five minutes, or until chicken is just cooked through.
Add lime juice and nam pla. Taste for balance between nam pla and lime. If one flavor is dominating too much, add a little of the other.
Garnish with green onion and cilantro.