I'm generally something of a wuss when it comes to chili-spiced food. I like complex seasonings, sure. But too much heat, and I start to break a sweat and grab for the water glass (I've heard that dairy is a better foil for the volatile oils, but water's usually closer). I think there might be an actual physiological component to my wussiness, as my lips often redden and swell to pouty bee-stung proportions. Whatever the reason, I'm not one to prove my machismo when it comes to chili-eating. But there are some exceptions.
Well, maybe one exception: tom kha soup. This Thai recipe is a ridiculously herbal-fragrant hot-sour soup, with a coconut milk background. It's sour from lime juice, sweet and creamy from coconut milk, salty and pungent with fish sauce, and piquant with lemongrass, galanga root and lime leaves. And in addition to that, it's spicy. Breaking-a-sweat spicy, cutting-through-congestion spicy. Somehow, in this context, I can't get enough. (A big scoop of rice to balance this out doesn't hurt either.)
The chili heat I use in this soup is Nam Prik Pao, a sweet and spicy paste made with dried pods that are toasted, soaked, and blended with ingredients like garlic, shallots, and dried shrimp. It can be so intense that neighbors called the cops on a London Thai joint that was cooking up a batch, mistaking the chili fumes for a chemical attack. Seriously. But in Tom Kha, it's well balanced by the other ingredients. If you don't have Nam Prik Pao, you can substitute some red Thai curry paste, or other asian chili paste, to good effect. The most distinctive element of the soup's taste comes from the galanga root, an Asian rhizome with a difficult-to-describe lemon-ginger-piney flavor. You can substitute standard ginger, but this one's worth seeking out.
I realize that this recipe may seem somewhat daunting: the ingredients are unfamiliar to many cooks, and the amounts are very imprecise. But these obstacles can be easily overcome. The galanga root, lime leaves, and lemongrass can be easily found at most Asian markets, and can be stored in your freezer until you make the soup again (and you will want to make it again). As for the amounts called for, you're going to want to play around with these to your taste. Chili pastes vary in heat levels, just as individual palates vary in heat acceptance. Some love the funk of fish sauce (me!), while others might just want a salty whiff. As a general rule, I find that the final seasoning of lime juice/fish sauce/chili paste should be tinkered with delicately, tasting as you go. But as for the lime leaves, galanga, and lemongrass that form the basis of the broth? Those are pretty much impossible to overdo.
adapted from a combination of several sources, including the Tom Kha Goong from The Asian Grandmother's Cookbook blog, the Tom Kha Gai from Chez Pim, and a recipe from a Minneapolis restaurant I learned many years ago at the Carleton College Tofu Festival
4 cups stock (vegetable or shrimp)
1 large handful kaffir lime leaves
4" chunk galanga root, hacked into thick slices if possible
4 stalks lemongrass, peeled of tough outer layers, cut into chunks and whacked with knife to bruise
1 can coconut milk
juice of 2-3 limes
2-4 Tbsp fish sauce
1-4 Tbsp Thai roasted chili paste (Nam Prik Pao), or other Thai chili paste or red curry paste
1 pinch-1 Tbsp sugar
1/2 lb mushrooms, sliced in halves or quarters, depending upon size
1/2 head cauliflower, broken into florets
2 small broccoli crowns, broken into florets
3 shallots or 1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
1/2 cup grape or cherry tomatoes, if it's the season
1 large handful mint leaves (optional, but nice)
1 lb shrimp, peeled
1/4 cup cilantro leaves, coarsley chopped
rice for serving (preferably sticky rice or jasmine rice)
In a large soup pot, combine the stock with the lime leaves, galanga root, and lemongrass. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat until it's just enough to maintain a simmer. Simmer for 30 minutes to infuse the broth with the flavorings.
After 30 minutes, pour in the can of coconut milk. Add the lime juice, fish sauce, chili paste, and sugar, starting with the smaller amounts and tasting until you like the balance of hot, sour, salty and sweet flavors. The soup will be served with rice, so you can go a little heavier with the heat than you might otherwise. Add the mushrooms, cauliflower, and broccoli, and simmer for a couple of minutes, until a little shy of tender-crisp. Add the shallots or red onion, tomatoes (if using), and mint leaves, simmering another minute or two until the vegetables are just shy of done. Add the shrimp, and cook another minute until pink (they'll continue to cook in the residual heat, so err on the side of underdone). Turn off the heat.
Taste again to finally adjust the seasonings, add more lime juice, fish sauce or chili paste if needed. The inedible lime leaves, galanga root and lemongrass can be fished out, or left in to further infuse (just make sure diners know to set them aside as they eat). Serve in bowls with rice, topped with the fresh cilantro.