6 June 2011

It is principal

Reader, would you agree that flu in summertime sounds like a joke? Would you also second me on that it really, really, really does not feel like one? Aw shucks! However unpleasant, I don’t mind a running nose, a swollen, scratchy throat, a cough that turns my lungs inside out as soon as they appear in winter, preferably in February, a time especially designated for crawling in bed and spending days – with occasional visits to the bathroom and the kitchen, in that particular order -- covered from the daylight-deprived world with a blanket, sweating the cold and all other miseries out.

The sun is unsuccessfully trying to stick its neck out through the shambolic rain-bearing clouds today. But even so, it’s still warm and agreeable out. No need for a jacket or even a scarf, both not a very unusual outerwear choice in Amsterdam in June. My spirit is willing to take a walk in the rain and listen to the drum-drum-drum of raindrops against my umbrella, to the tchhhh of car tires knifing at high speed through the rainwater pools, to the rustle of the tree leaves disturbed by the wind high above my head. But my body, sneezing and coughing in two-minute intervals, has given my spirit the double bird and refuses to budge. I stay home, pull the blinds close, and put on a turtleneck sweater because I’m running a fever and feeling cold, the irony not lost on me. It’s time to make Tom Yum Kai, Thai hot-and-sour chicken soup, I feel.

I got to know Tom Yum Kai by happenstance last fall. I do like Thai food, but I must admit I never tried the said soup, which is ubiquitous in any Thai restaurant, good and not so much, near and far. When Anthony and I go to our favorite Thai place, I turn into a ferocious noodle eater usually leaving soups out for suckers. Or rather, I used to. I fell rather sick past November, and the cold wouldn’t go away for weeks. I don’t remember where or from whom I heard that Tom Yum (‘sour soup’ in Thai) is believed to have immune-mending properties – and now that I think of it, how could it not with all those red chilies, ginger, and lime juice packed in it? – but I do remember that that evening we rushed out for a Thai meal for one reason only: Tom Yum. Lesson learnt -- I add a steaming bowl of hot, sour, and salty Tom Yum to the list, if not instead, of medicines to take when a need strikes. Over the time I also learnt I don’t have to go to a restaurant to get my chicken Tom Yum. There is no secret in making the soup, except that you have to trust your taste buds to balance out the bright, bold, and tongue-tickling flavors. Oh Thai flavors!

You begin by preparing a quick aromatic broth. Just throw some garlic, ginger, lemon grass and kaffir lime leaves in a pot of boiling water to infuse it with incredible, exhilarating flavors. After a minute or so, you add chunks of chicken breasts and let the lot boil for a handful of minutes. Next, plop in some mushrooms. After a couple of minutes, you remove the pot from the heat and stir in the requisite fish sauce (salty), lime juice (sour), and chilies (hot). Then you taste and adjust the seasoning to achieve the balance between the three. Taste and adjust some more, if needed. A sprinkle of fresh coriander and basil as a final touch and that is that.

My rendition of the soup is not authentic in a sense that I didn’t learn it from a ninety-nine year-old Thai grandmother who has been cooking it since age ten having watched her own mother making it day in-day out for the rest of the big family. Still, it is authentic to me in a way that I followed and trusted my senses to align those big flavors and bring them to harmony. Taste and tweak as you go. It is principal. That and to eat Tom Yam Kai when you are battling a cold, in winter or in summer, all the same.

Be well, Reader!

Tom Yum Kai (Thai Hot-and-Sour Chicken Soup)

Yield: 4 servings

A few things before you put a pot on the fire…First, in the event you can’t find fresh Kaffir lime leaves – these are usually available at an Asian, of course Thai in particular, supermarket -- use zest of two limes instead. Further on, commonly the plant root of choice in Tom Yum is galangal, a member of the ginger family that is not quite as rich and potent as ginger. Frankly, I think galangal’s flavor in Tom Yum gets lost behind those of lemon grass and garlic. For this reason, I prefer to use regular ginger for its fiery, peppery, confident punch. And finally, I like my chicken Tom Yum to be on the chunky rather than on the watery side, which is why I call forth a decent amount of chicken and mushrooms. Speaking of the latter, you could use shiitake mushrooms to keep in line with the Asian flair of the whole composition, but all those innumerous Tom Yums I tried sported champignons, their plump, slightly firm round buttons floating atop like buoys. I like cute champignons. I use them here.

1 L (4 cups) water or chicken stock
5 fresh Kaffir lime leaves
1 stalk lemon grass, cut into 4-cm (1.5-inch) pieces
3-cm (about 1-inch) long piece of ginger root, peeled and thinly sliced
2 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
450 gr (15 oz) chicken breast, cut into 4-5-cm (1.5-2-inch) chunks
250-300 gr champignons (8-10 oz), intact if small, or halved or quartered if big
3-4 Tbsp lime juice, or to taste
4-5 Tbsp Thai fish sauce, or to taste
1 Tbsp chopped fresh red chili (with seeds), or to taste
Chili oil (optional)
2 Tbsp fresh coriander leaves, finely chopped
1 Tbsp fresh basil leaves, finely chopped

1. Over medium-high heat, bring water (or chicken stock) to a boil. Add the Kaffir lime leaves, lemon grass, ginger, and garlic, and cook for about 2 minutes to let the liquid infuse with flavors.

2. Dump in the chicken and the mushrooms, dial the heat down to medium-low, and cook uncovered for about 5-6 minutes. The chicken should be cooked through. Do not overcook.

3. Remove from the heat. Tip in the lime juice, fish sauce, and chilies. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Give it a few squirts of chili oil, if using. Let cool slightly, about 4-5 minutes, before adding the fresh herbs. Serve hot.

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