Do not be afraid, all you fierce lovers of Thai food. While this fragrant, unbelievably delicious soup has a long list of unusual ingredients, it takes no real skill outside of crafting a shopping list. Galangal, a knobby cousin of ginger, may present your biggest challenge to find. I failed. So I subbed in some ginger and kept going.
If you're lucky enough to live close to an Asian market, shop there. We have CAM, Columbus Asian Market, where you can get a whole mess of birdseye chillies for a dollar or two, lemongrass, all kinds of exotic mushrooms and cheap limes. I got more gingerroot than I'll ever use for $1.83. And FYI, they have trays of peeled garlic for a couple bucks, in case you do lots of stir fry.
For this soup, if you don't like shrimp so much and prefer chicken, you can slice two boneless, skinless chicken breasts into strips and cook them in the soup where it calls for shrimp. (It then becomes Tom Kha Gai Soup.)
We made the chicken version in my Cooking with Friends group a few months ago, oddly, as part of an Australian menu (lots of Asian influence in the northeastern part of the country near the Great Barrier Reef). It was one of the favorites of the day.
3 cups chicken stock, preferrably homemade
2 stalks lemongrass, tender parts cut into thin diagonal slices
3 kaffir lime leaves (or more to taste), chopped into slivers
3 slices galangal, cut into thin matchsticks (you can use ginger if you're desperate, but galangal is more intense)
6 straw or button mushrooms, sliced
Salt to taste
1/4 cup lime juice
2 to 3 tablespoons fish sauce
12 ounces large shrimp (frozen is fine)
2 cups coconut milk (I made do with a 13.5 ounce can...works just fine)
2 or more red birdseye chillies, split and seeded
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro, more to garnish
Place the chicken stock in a large saucepan and add the lemongrass, lime leaves, galangal, mushrooms and salt and bring slowly to a boil, then reduce heat.
Add the lime juice, fish sauce and shrimp and simmer uncovered for about 5 minutes, taking care not to overcook the shrimp.
Ladle into soup bowls and garnish with cilantro.
Suggested soundtrack: Rihanna's "Stay"