Thai Tom Kha is a creamy, sweet yet savory and slightly spicy soup that is on the comfort food list in our house. Literally translated, tom kha gai means “chicken galangal soup.” It is traditionally made from chicken lightly poached in a silky coconut milk broth which has been infused with galangal (kha), lemongrass, and lime leaves. I’m making the traditional Tom Kha with a little twist of my own. I’m adding shrimp and garnishing with perfectly seared scallops. Both sea and bay scallops are delicious in this recipe. I wanted to sear my scallops instead of just poaching them in the broth. The scallops at Heinen’s this week are just to amazing to poach. They are far better pan seared. When you use your spoon to cut through the caramelized edge to reveal the silky interior and taste it with the amazing, sweet, milky smooth broth with a slight hint of heat you will understand the process.
Making this soup authentically requires rounding up a few hard to find ingredients. Heinen’s stocks lemongrass and occasionally has a shipment of galangal. Lime leaves are a bit harder to find. Lime kaffir leaves are known for their amazing fragrance. While it’s often reported that lime leaves simply cannot be replaced in dishes calling for them, I often substitute lime peel in this soup when I can’t find them. It is still DELICIOUS.
Another product you’ll see used here is Ghee. What is Ghee? It is a type of clarified butter. You’ll find it where butter is sold. Whereas butter contains butterfat, milk solids and water, ghee is pure butterfat cooked longer, until all moisture is removed and the milk solids are caramelized and then filtered out. I love cooking scallops in ghee because it gives them a buttery flavor that holds up well to high temperatures. Ghee is stable up to 480°f. Scallops are most delicious when they have a nice brown crust on either side, and are just barely cooked through in the middle.
Galangal is often confused with ginger. It is an aromatic root with a tender peel and woody flesh with a slightly similar look as ginger. It has spice notes similar to ginger, but also a rich, earthy flavor which ginger cannot replicate. Look for young galangal, which has a thinner peel.
Lemongrass is a culinary herb used in many dishes from soup to curries and even tea. Lemongrass imparts a beautiful lemon scent and flavor to anything it is used in. Often sold in bunches, look for stalks that are clean, fragrant, and free of soft spots. The leaves may be dry, but the stalk should not be.
As with all seafood your shrimp and scallops should smell sweet with a slight scent of brine (salty, seawater) Fresh seafood should never smell fishy. The scallops and shrimp I picked up at Heinen’s today is exactly as it should be.
Scallop and Shrimp Tom Kha
- 1” piece ginger, peeled
- 10 kaffir lime leaves or 1 Tbsp. lime zest and ¼ cup lime juice
- 4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
- 2 13.5-oz. can coconut milk (I am not strict with broth measurements. Basically this dish uses equal parts coconut milk and chicken broth)
- 1 lb. peeled deveined raw shrimp
- 1/2 lb. scallops
- 8 oz. shiitake, oyster, or button mushrooms, stemmed, caps cut into bite-size pieces
- 2 Tbsp. fish sauce (such as nam pla or nuoc nam)
- 2 Serrano peppers seeded and sliced. (More if you like it spicy. Be careful, they’re HOT wash your hands.)
- 1 tsp. sugar
- 2 stalks fresh lemongrass, tough outer layers removed
- White or Brown rice, chili oil, cilantro leaves with tender stems, and lime wedges (for serving)
- 2 Tbs. Ghee for cooking scallops.
- Using the back of a knife, lightly smash lemongrass and ginger; cut lemongrass into 4” pieces.
- Bring lemongrass, ginger, lime leaves or lime peel, and broth to a boil in a large saucepan. Reduce heat and simmer until flavors are melded, 8–10 minutes. Strain broth into clean saucepan or use a slotted spoon to remove solid ingredients; discard solids.
- Mix in coconut milk, fish sauce, and sugar. whisk to incorporate coconut milk.
- Reduce heat, add mushrooms, peppers and simmer until mushrooms are slightly soft, 10 minutes.
- Add shrimp and simmer until they are cooked, 6-8 minutes. If using small Bay scallops add them with the shrimp. If using large sea scallops like I did today, sear them in Ghee while shrimp is cooking. See instructions below.
- Divide soup among bowls over rice. Top with seared scallops. Serve with chili oil, cilantro, and lime wedges.
Cooking perfectly seared scallops is easier than you may think.
- Start by blotting scallops dry with a paper towel. When you have an option opt for dry scallops. The wet variety will be more likely to steam in the pan, not sear. To avoid this make sure you blot them dry.
- Heat ghee* in a cast iron skillet or stainless steel pan over medium-high heat. Season the scallops immediately before placing them into the pan. If the salt sits on the scallops too long, it will draw moisture out and will be more likely to steam instead of sear. Add the scallops to the pan.
- Allow them to sear in the pan without touching them. If the initial bond between the scallop and the pan is broken within the first minutes, they will not caramelize well. Look for a browned crust to form on the very bottom of the scallops, about 2 minutes. Then flip and sear again on the other side for an additional 2 minutes. Don’t overcook the scallops. Remember that they will continue to cook even after they have been removed from heat.
*Heat the ghee in the pan until it is very hot before adding the scallops. I love cooking them in ghee because it gives them a buttery flavor that holds up well to high temperatures. Ghee is stable up to 480°f. Scallops are most delicious when they have a nice brown crust on either side, and are just barely cooked through in the middle.