The last time I was in Los Angeles I was ten years old, gangly, with a boy haircut, visiting my mother’s filmmaker cousin in the Hollywood hills. After a few days on the West Coast, away from the loudness and cold winds of New York, I’m enthralled by the palm trees, the expansive roads, the flat houses, the beaches lining the shore and bursting with bronzed bodies even if the weather is too brisk for swimming. My father moved to LA for a new job and he’s only just found a house to rent, so there are boxes strewn in the living room, no soap in the showers. The house is sparingly furnished, leaving wide spaces for my lively brothers to stampede around on the hardwood floors.
 

We eat well.
 


 

 
First things come first: visiting supermarkets. On Sunday we manage to fit four supermarkets into one afternoon, a testament of how much we like food and hunting for good food. My father and I agree that there are few simple pleasures greater than browsing new food stores. We begin with two Thai supermarkets, first a small Laos-Thai market where we find galangal and Thai red chilies. Then a sprawling Thai supermarket with Thai pop music blasting from the speakers, to which my three-year old brother dances what he calls his monkey dance, and aisles of jars, tins, bags of ingredients shipped from Bangkok. Pickled mango, dozens of curries, fish sauces, flours, long lemongrass stalks, palm sugar, and crispy coconut rolls. But the store is lacking fresh produce and vegetables. We make a quick stop at Whole Foods for protein (chicken, pork, shrimp), before heading to the Japanese supermarket, Mitsuwa. This is an enormous supermarket, and I feel as though I’m walking into Japan, with the colorful mochi sweets beckoning me at the entrance, Shiseido beauty products, little white salty fish—a childhood favorite when sprinkled over rice, brilliant yellow pickled daikon, rows of flavoring for onigiri, packs of curry rice, and individually wrapped nashi (Asian pear). It would be easy to camp out for hours, and my father and I haven’t been this excited in a long time, like children we hurry from aisle to aisle exclaiming at each new product, comparing bento boxes.
 
Back home we unload the car and stock our kitchen until it’s filled to the brim with our new purchases. We are pleased by the excursion. All in all, it’s a marvelous feeling, we observe our colorful ingredients, and begin dinner preparations.
 
My father has been complaining about kale for a while (what’s all the fuss? He asks with a thick French accent, why would anyone eat that tough cabbage raw?). He is incredulous, so I’m armed to prove him wrong. I prepare a kale salad using dark green Tuscan kale, chopping the leaves into thin slices and massaging them with an olive oil-lemon dressing. I add sliced apples (that I’ve soaked in salted water to prevent browning), cranberries, toasted almonds, goat cheese, and avocado. I don’t think he’ll be making kale salad on a weekly basis, but he nods with approval.
 

 

 
For the main course my stepmother prepares a traditional Thai dish: Tom Kha Gai, chicken cooked in a light coconut sauce softly flavored with lemongrass, red chili, kaffir leaves, galangal, lemon, and fish sauce. She went to cooking school, is a specialist in fruit carving, and prepares simple and complex dishes effortlessly. She is a patient teacher, and shows me each step, cutting slowly, pointing at the different ingredients, while I take notes. Tom Kha Gai is the kind of dish you can prepare at the last minute, quickly, perfect for uncalled guests or an indolent evening. The flavors are incredibly fresh and subtle, with enough spice to gently heat your mouth. I can’t imagine anyone turning their head away from Tom Kha Gai, I asked for second and third servings, spooning the steaming soup over my rice.
 

 

 
Tom Kha Gai
(Serves three)
 
Ingredients:
2/3 cup coconut milk
3-4 tbsp. water
3 lemongrass stalks
½ white onion, sliced thinly
Galangal, sliced thinly (you want 5-6 slices)
1 large chicken breast
5 kaffir lime leaves, shredded with your fingers
5 white mushrooms, sliced
1-2 red chilies, sliced in half
A few sprigs of cilantro, chopped coarsely
1 tbsp. lemon juice
1 tbsp. fish sauce
1 tsp. salt
 
Directions:
For the lemongrass: peel the outer layer of the stalk, leaving the softer stalk, which is easier to slice, cut the end of the bulb, and cut into thin, slanted slices, like cutting a baguette. Only cut the soft part of the stalk, avoiding the woody, green section.
 
In a saucepan, add the coconut milk and water and heat over high heat. Once the coconut milk is simmering, add the lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and galangal. Cook for 3-5 minutes. Then add the onion, mushroom, chicken, and red chili, and continue cooking for another 7-10 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through. In a small bowl stir lemon juice and fish sauce, set aside. Add salt, stir, and then add the fish sauce and lemon juice mixture. Stir, cover, and turn off the heat. Let sit for a few minutes before serving over rice.
 
For dessert I made an apple cake, featured here on David Lebovitz’s wonderful blog. It’s a new favorite of mine for this season. Over the autumn and winter I fell in love with food52’s apple cake with its moist interior and spices, an ideal recipe for cold weather. This new apple cake is thinner, speckled with apples (I used Fujis), and it has the splendid dense creaminess of a clafoutis.
 

 

 
We eat everything, down to the bones:
 

 
 

3 Responses to “A week in Los Angeles, and Tom Kha Gai”

  1. Kirsten says:

    beautiful article // yr little bro is going to hate you in 5 years for posting this picture of his butt on the ~*internet

  2. Linda says:

    The kale salad sounds pretty simple and even yummy, though I tend to be in your dad’s camp when it comes to kale. “Massage” might be the verb that changes my mind about kale, actually.