What does it taste like? It has sweetness (you get that from coconut cream) balanced by saltiness (fish sauce is essential here; substituting salt will yield a bland broth), and both are heightened by the addition of lime juice at the end of cooking. Chili and ginger give the soup a lovely kick. To describe the flavor as complex would be a good though not an all-encompassing summation.
But beyond the flavor, there’s the aroma. This soup has a myriad of spices and herbs, and all that give it an incomparable aroma. Lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, cilantro roots and stems, galangal and ginger not only contribute to the overall flavor of the soup — they are also largely responsible for its tantalizing aroma.
To make the herbs and spices deliver their best, you need to grind them so they they release their natural oils. You don’t need to make a paste with them; you just want to break them up into small pieces. This mixture is dropped into fish broth along with lemongrass and tomatoes.
When the spices and herbs have simmered in the fish broth for ten minutes, it’s time to pour in the coconut cream. Tips for the coconut cream:
- If using freshly grated coconut (should be mature, of course), squeeze the coconut without adding water to get pure coconut cream.
- If using canned coconut milk, chill unopened in the fridge for a few hours. Open the can and scoop out the thick cream that floats on top. Use that and discard the liquid underneath.
- If using powdered, dissolve in the least amount of water to make coconut cream.
Finally, drop in thinly sliced fish fillet, and simmer just until the fish is done.
Thai fish coconut cream soup (tom kha pla)
For the spice base
- 4 slices galangal - (rehydrated if using dried)
- ¼ cup sliced lemongrass - (lower portion of the stalk only)
- 2 pairs kaffir lime leaves - ribs removed
- 2 shallots - peeled and roughly chopped
- 1 bird’s eye chili - (add another for more heat)
- 2 tablespoons cilantro - roots and stems
- 2 slices ginger
- 1 teaspoon fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon coconut sugar - dissolved in a teaspoon of water to make a paste
To make the soup
- cilantro - leaves
- lime wedges
- Grind all the solid ingredients in the spice base list. Pour in the fish sauce and diluted coconut sugar slowly to make grinding easier.
- Heat the fish broth in a pot, stir in the spice base, tomato, tied lemongrass and fish sauce to taste. Bring to the boil, lower the heat and simmer for ten minutes.
- Slowly pour in the coconut cream and stir. Taste and add more fish sauce, as needed.
- Bring to a gentle boil and allow to cook, uncovered, for five minutes.
- Stir in the fish slices and cook for another five minutes.
- Taste the broth, add more fish sauce, if needed, before stirring in the lime juice.
- Serve your tom kha pla garnished with cilantro.