Purple soup of a Thai persuasion

After our Indian cooking class a couple of weeks ago, Susanne and I headed out to Uwajimaya, the Asian grocery, to stock up on ingredients. After all, I’d either made a dish (palak paneer) or watched other people prepare sides and entrees, so surely I was past Square One for Asian Cookery. To be honest, I wasn’t really that overconfident, but I did think I’d be able to pull off something like a coconut soup. Sure, it wasn’t on our list of items to create in the class I attended, but Thai soup and Indian curried broth for poaching fish aren’t exactly total opposites, either.

We showed up at the grocery without a written list of items, instead thinking back to what we’d seen and used in the class. Serrano peppers. Garam masala. Coriander, bok choy, paneer, extra firm tofu, grapeseed oil—we combed through the whole of the large market, reading the fine print so we didn’t pick up any MSG or fish proteins, as one or the other of us is allergic to those things.

I realized, to my horror, that I was holding a jar of straw mushrooms away from my face so I could read it better. Scarcely 40 and I need reading glasses? I did what any reasonable, red-blooded man would do when faced with such a shocking development.

I called my mother.

“Mom,” I said into my cell phone, still holding the can a foot away from me, as if to demonstrate, “you won’t believe what just happened to me!”

“What, honey,” she asked. She sounded distraught. I was probably over the top about this whole lens hardening issue.

“I’m trying to read a label, and I have to hold it farther away to see it!”

“What? Speak up!”

I laughed, hard, into the phone.

“Everett, what’s going on,” she asked. I explained that I needed glasses and it was high time she bought herself a hearing aid.

This time we laughed together.

Finally we’d assembled the items we thought we’d need to make a number of different Indian or Asian dishes, but as some of our things were perishable, I knew we’d have to start cooking pretty quickly. I also was hit with a sudden craving for Tom Ka Gai soup—a standard, Thai coconut soup with lime and chicken. I knew I should have looked at a recipe before I shopped, but hey, if I had most of what it called for, it should be fine anyway.

In the back of my mind, I remembered a rule from a baking book of mine, In the Sweet Kitchen. Never make more than one substitution. But baking is different than cooking, said the 43 percent of me who craved the soup. Baking is chemistry.

The 12 percent of me that also knew that cooking is chemistry was apparently tied up in a closet with a gag. I blame the 45 percent of me that claimed indifference. Ambivalent, my ass.

I grated up some fresh ginger—smelled like heaven—and pressed two cloves of garlic through my mill. I julienned an onion and heated up some light oil in a Dutch Oven, adding the aromatics and letting them season the pot. Then I tossed in the roughly chopped bok choy, letting it wilt, and all was well. Coriander, freshly ground, went in, along with ground cumin. I swallowed saliva, thrilled at the magic being made in this hard to use, tiny kitchen. Water for the base, a full can of coconut milk. Chopped limes, one serrano pepper, sliced down the middle.

Let’s see, what was I missing? I tasted the broth and figured that the flavors needed some time to come together. Rome wasn’t built in a day, after all. The bouquet in the pot was delightful, but it wasn’t mingling well enough in the liquid itself.

Oh, cilantro. I rough cut some sprigs. I checked my two online recipes. They had a different list of ingredients. I didn’t have curry leaves because we hadn’t remembered them in the store, and I didn’t have any lemongrass since we hadn’t used any in the class. I’d already substituted the oil and here I was missing a few ingredients that could be causing my lack of flavor, but then I remembered that in the Indian curry liquid—which I know, is not Tom Ka Gai soup—our instructor had included tamarind extract. We did buy that at Uwajimaya, so I pulled the plastic container from the pantry and plopped in most of a teaspoonful. A regular teaspoon, not a measuring spoon.

It was as if I had added pure evil to the soup of Unicorn Love. I didn’t know coconut milk could curdle.

Surely it must be okay. I stirred the pot, looking at the limes which had lost their bright green color. In fact, all of the greens were decidedly lavender-brown in color. The milk was purple. I poured a bowl for myself, because it still smelled good.

The smell was a cloaking device for the hellishness that the soup had become. Metallic, cloying, sour, it was everything food was not meant to be. My taste buds were apoplectic at the flavor. Why was I doing this to them?

I made a face. Susanne, working on her laptop across the living room from me, took notice.

“Is it bad?”

“It hurts my soul,” I said, my lips curved into a very intense frown.

After my cauliflower soup debacle of last month, I think I’m going to lay off the soup-making for a while.

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2 Comments on “Purple soup of a Thai persuasion”

  1. October 25, 2010 at 11:17 pm #

    You had me so hungry until you got to the end! And now I’m homesick, too – I love visiting that store whenever I’m back in Seattle.

  2. evmaroon
    October 25, 2010 at 11:33 pm #

    I felt the same way, Donna! It was all beautiful until it wasn’t.

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