Smell Your Way Around Uchi’s Tom Kha Broth
Smell is the sense most closely linked with memory, as well as a key tool in cooking. Smell is fascinating because it allows you to time travel back to your grandma’s house, a blooming hike in early spring, or the steam coming off of your first perfectly plated pasta, and instantly recognize that your nose has been there before. Just like when you’re reducing a sauce, or baking a cake, you can smell when it’s not ready yet. I’m super new to a lot of the ingredients and dishes that we make at Uchi, and learning with my nose has been my favorite part.
In every restaurant I’ve ever cooked in there are certain dishes that I look forward to making because the smell of the experience is unique and exciting. Every time I make them I find myself smiling and making lots of mental notes for my nose rolodex. One of the things my nose looks forward to making at Uchi is the Tom Kha broth. It’s such a rewarding broth from start to finish. By far, the most labor intensive part of that dish is gathering & prepping all your aromatics. It’s like a fragrance scavenger hunt through the kitchen. Grabbing spices from the pantry shelves, coconut milk from the shed, kaffir lime leaves from the freezer, shallots from dry storage, a rondeau from the ice room, and thai chilis from the walk in.
Even in gathering all the ingredients there are interesting little scent bombs, like cracking the seal of the palm sugar cup. The scent is so strong, it punches you in the face like a shot of dark rum, and then fades away in a musky, deeply sweet retreat. The kaffir lime leaves are another happy surprise encountered along the way. Each time I cut open the bag I instantly think of a Caribbean butterfly garden with all the nuances of tropical flowers and overripe fruit. Lemongrass is a shortcut to memory lane. With the first pound of the heel of my knife, I not only wake up the essential oils in the lemongrass, but the uncanny smell of Fruity Pebbles right along with it. Cutting the fresh thai chilis is a completely different sensation, all fresh and spicy, right in the tip of your nose, as opposed to the heady, spicy scent of eucalyptus and ginger that comes with chopping the galangal.
Truly though, everything together is roller coaster ride for your nose. The cumulative smells of when the galangal, kaffir lime leaf, garlic, shallot, thai chili, and lemongrass hit the pan is an incredible mushroom cloud of aromatics that is absolutely intoxicating. It is just the beginning of a beautifully rich broth that is completely vegan. It’s amazing to me that you can derive such deep flavors from such a simple marriage of ingredients. After the aromatics sweat out you deglaze the pan with coconut milk, water, and throw in your dried shiitakes, palm sugar, and mushroom powder. It’s a delicately sweet and spicy smell at the beginning. As it reduces the color gets darker and the broth richer. The bubbles become slightly thicker, and everything mellows together in the endlessly fascinating alchemy of ingredients to cuisine. At the end you finish with a small mountain of lime juice and a drizzling of dark, malty black vinegar. It’s done when you can’t smell it without salivating.
It is one of my favorite things to eat at Uchi, especially on a cold night. I love eating it almost as much as I love making it.