Authentically Inauthentic Thai Coconut Soup

June 26, 2012

Authenticity is often a measure of quality when it comes to food, as if being able to call something “authentic” somehow makes it better. There’s an amazingly insightful and interesting article by Todd Kliman in the first issue of Lucky Peach called The Problem of Authenticity. Kliman talks about how in a world of cultural homogenization, commercialism, and the vast emergence of generic things, we are becoming sentimental and nostalgic for things that are authentic, whatever authentic means. He challenges the perceived meaning of authenticity on many levels, and discusses the impracticality of seeking it. Kliman argues that “fusion” food, often wholly discredited, can be more genuine than food that is deemed “authentic”. He talks about how cuisine naturally evolves through fusion and that perhaps the meaning of authentic has more to do with a cooks experience and available resources, rather than the ability to seek and mimic traditional approaches. The fact that something can be done the same way over generations is questionable; most dishes that we think of as authentic are products of fusion anyway.

I’m not doing justice to the incredible piece of writing with my brief synopsis, you must indulge in it yourself. What I am trying to say is that I couldn’t agree more that the term “authentic” is subjective, misunderstood, and maybe even irrelevant when it comes to food and cooking.

thai coconut soup

Travelling always had me excited about experiencing “authentic” cuisine. Whatever the meaning or relevance of authenticity is, it must exist when experiencing food prepared by people local to a region in which the cuisine originated in, right?

My husband and I recently traveled to Thailand and, naturally, were hoping to experience “authentic” Thai cuisine. Well …we certainly found Thai food prepared by Thais in Thailand, but if authentic food means that it is consistently prepared in a specific way, we couldn’t have been further away from finding authenticity.

What we did find was huge variation in the way dishes were prepared. When we really enjoyed something, we sometimes ordered it again the next day at the same restaurant, only to find that the preparation and even the ingredients were different. Never mind trying to order the same thing at a different restaurant. Sometimes the Pad Thai was red, sometimes sweet, sometimes there were bean sprouts, other times cabbage. Thais in Thailand, you see, are like the rest of us when it comes to cooking. Some are great cooks, some are not. Some have access to ingredients that others do not have access to; seasonality and region greatly contribute to that. So are there “authentic” versions of red Thai curry or tom yum soup? I think so, but it has nothing to do with specific ingredients or approaches, which we often look to when seeking authenticity.

One of my favourite meals in Thailand was on a beautiful cliff-top patio on Haad Yao beach in Koh Phangan. I was craving vegetables, and a handful of veggies simmered in a warm flavourful coconut broth couldn’t have better hit the spot. I immediately knew that I was going to be making something similar at home, but tried to just enjoy it and not pay too much attention to how exactly it was made.

Thinking about this whole authenticity thing, I think the top 3 things you can do to make something authentic are pay attention to quality and freshness of ingredients, put love and care into the preparation, and take advantage of what you, as a cook, like and are inspired by. Your results may not be authentic Thai, Italian, Japanese, or whatever, but they are authentic YOU. It is possibly the only “authentic” that we, as cooks, can actually achieve.

thai coconut soup

I’m going to try something different in sharing my recipe; lets call it more of a cooking guide. I’ll give you some pointers and some pictures for inspiration. You, your ingredients, and your taste buds can take it from there.

From taking a Thai cooking course in the past, I knew that coconut milk is wonderful with lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, garlic, and ginger. I combined home made chicken stock with coconut milk to reach the level of richness I desired, which ended up being a 2:1 ration of stock to coconut milk. The lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, garlic, and ginger were simmered in the broth for half an hour. Tasting it along the way helped me reach a good amount of flavour. Finally, the broth needed some salt and acidity, so I seasoned it with salt and lime juice.

If you’ve cooked veggies in a soup before, you probably know that veggies left in a liquid are less than stellar the next day. I decided to simmer them in the broth right before serving. Different veggies also have different cooking times, so paying attention to adding them in a certain order helps achieve good veggie texture (this is where the love and care come in). I picked a combination of what I had, what I felt like, and what was growing in the garden for my mix. It ended up being a combination of sweet potato, green beans, red onions, cherry tomatoes, shrimp, and Thai basil. I added them in that order with short time intervals, and voila! We have an authentically inauthentic Thai coconut soup.

Now some ingredient/flavour suggestions: If you want some heat, or are missing the broth flavouring ingredients, try adding a curry paste. If you’re looking for some sweetness, often found in Thai dishes, add some cubed mango or pineapple at the end. Bell peppers, mushrooms, carrots, squash, broccoli, and cauliflower are also excellent additions, as are cilantro and green onion. Pulled chicken and fish can work instead of (or in addition to) shrimp. What will ultimately make this taste best is using good quality ingredients that you like, and taking care to cook them properly.

Please get in touch if you would like some more guidance or a more structured recipe, but I encourage you to try winging it. I’d also love to hear about the crazy veggie combos that you come up with!

I ♥ Your Comments!

    • Sofia

      Thank you, I will check it out.

  1. I will never forget how exquisite and delicious Thai cuisine. I am fortunate to have experienced it and I must say they have perfected the mix of lemon grass and coconut milk.
    Love your shots!

    • Sofia

      Agreed! I think they’ve perfected many flavour combinations.

  2. I love guideline “recipes” like this! It allows us all to break into our inner selves and use what’s available to us! Yours is definitely a beautiful soup!

    • Sofia

      Thanks, Peggy! I find guidelines a lot less intimidating than precise recipes, knowing that even if I don’t have all of the ingredients, it will still work out.

  3. Sometimes, authenticity can be overrated too. But I admit, tasting the different versions of “authentic food” in Bangkok, is the main reason why my Thai travel last year was gastronomically satisfying. Thailand rocks!;)

  4. So I stumbled in here via Foodgawker. I just wanted to say that I find your style of recipe delivery to be awesome. I so often wrestle with trying to follow directions while still feeling like I’m cooking something that is mine. I always feel sheepish when people ask me for my recipes and I have to tell them that I just add/adjust things until it is right. You know? Cook like jazz!

    • Sofia

      Yes! Cook like jazz :) The only “recipes” I have are the ones I occasionally deliberately measure to share here. It sometimes disappoints people, as do my attempts at cooking lessons.

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