Tom Kha Gai
Thai ingredients mingle together in this fabulous traditional dish, infusing coconut-chicken broth with unbelievable depth of flavor. Visit this page where the recipe was originally featured, to learn what Tom Kha Gai means in Thai, and more about Thai ingredients and traditions with this dish.
This recipe was originally created for A Series of Unfortunate Cooking Lessons, based on the book series by Lemony Snicket. If you are the type of person who enjoys delicious food and interesting conversation, I suggest you cook the recipes I've created for this this series rather than reading the books, which are filled with badly-prepared food and unpleasant dining companions.
Makes 4 servings as a main dish, or more as a soup or side.
3 cups unsalted chicken broth or 1 1/2 cups very flavorful, good quality unsalted chicken stock
1 stalk lemongrass
1 2-inch piece galangal (if you can't find galangal, ginger is a common substitute although the flavor is different)
5-6 red Thai chiles (also known as Bird's Eye chiles or Bird chiles), or more or less depending on your heat tolerance/enjoyment
4-5 fresh kaffir lime leaves
12 ounces good quality coconut milk (see further explanation about this ingredient below)
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 pound fresh mushrooms (such as straw mushrooms, oyster, cremini or white button; do not use shiitake as their flavor is too strong for this dish)
1/4 cup fish sauce (plus a little more if needed)
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice (about 2 standard-sized limes), plus a little more if needed
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves
1. If using 1 1/2 cups very flavorful, good-quality chicken stock, skip this step! Heat the chicken broth in a saucepan over medium-high heat until boiling. Allow it to boil as you prepare the other ingredients, until it is reduced by about half. (As water escapes as steam, rich, concentrated flavor is left behind.)
2. Remove the outermost, driest layers of the lemongrass stalk. Cut the lemongrass into lengths of about 1 inch (cutting on a diagonal will make for a nice presentation). Smash each of these lengths with a mallet or heavy skillet, to release the lemongrass flavor so it can infuse into the broth.
3. Slice the galangal into thin rounds. If it is a bit fat, you may want to cut it in half vertically first, so that your thin slices will be half-moons rather than rounds. This will make the pieces a bit more bite-sized at the end.
4. Remove the tough center stem from the lime leaves and tear them into small pieces.
5. Use your mallet or heavy skillet to smash the chiles a bit, just as you did with the lemongrass segments.
6. Combine the coconut milk and concentrated both or stock in a medium-sized pot over medium heat. Add the lemongrass, galangal, lime leaves and chiles and stir gently to combine. (You may want to add just 1-2 chiles to start, and add more later if you would like more heat. We enjoy it with about 5 chiles, which is roughly medium-heat. Some people like even more.) Allow the aromatic mixture to gently warm until steaming, but do not allow it to boil.
7. While the aromatics infuse into the soup, dice the chicken thighs into bite-sized chunks about 1 inch in diameter.
Coconut milk, coconut cream, and labeling confusion!
Ideally, the only ingredients listed should be coconut or "coconut extract" and water. At our local Asian market, we found a variety of cans labeled "coconut cream" or "coconut milk." The main difference seemed to be the amount of coconut "extract" included. Coconut cream seems to have more and is therefore thicker - creamier. We purchased the two shown here, and decided to use the Savoy. It is imported from Thailand, and does not contain any emulsifiers, thickeners or stabilizers. (Roland's, although organic, contains guar gum, a stabilizer.) Savoy was rich and creamy and turned out great!
Note that although "coconut cream" is okay to use, "cream of coconut" such as Coco Lopez or Coco Goya, are not! They have been sweetened for use in desserts and drinks and would ruin the flavor of this dish.
8. Cut the mushrooms into halves, quarters or slices, depending on the mushrooms you are using and the size and shape you want in the dish. (We happened to have cremini on hand when we made this dish, so we cut them into slices because we thought they would look nicer that way in the final dish).
9. Stir the chicken and mushrooms into the steaming liquid. Allow them to poach in the liquid for about 15 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through and the mushrooms are tender. Adjust the heat as necessary to keep it steaming hot, but not boiling. Strong boiling can cause the coconut milk to curdle and separate, and the chicken to over-cook and become tough and rubbery.
10. After about 15 minutes, remove one of the larger pieces of chicken and cut it to confirm it is cooked through (it should be opaque rather than pink in the middle). If not, allow the soup to cook 5 minutes longer.
11. Remove the soup from heat and stir in the lime juice and fish sauce.
12: Taste the soup. You should taste 1) sour, follwed by 2) salty, with a hint of 3) sweet from the coconut at the finish. And the whole thing should taste stunningly delicious. If needed, add a bit more lime juice or fish sauce, a splash at a time, until the flavors balance correctly.
13. Stir in the cilantro leaves just before serving. Your Tom Kha Gai is ready! Serve it Thai-style as an entree, with steamed jasmine rice. Or you may serve it as a soup or side dish.
Note when serving: You may choose whether to ladle the lemongrass pieces into each dish or try to leave them behind in the pot. The strong outer layers of lemongrass are very tough and inedible, and they have already done their job by infusing the dish with delicious aromatic flavor. If you ladle them into each serving, you may want to let your guests know they should eat around the lemongrass, just as they do in Thailand when eating this rustic dish.
This recipe is based on the one found at SheSimmers, the beautiful website of Leela Punyaratabandhu. Leela shares recipes and traditions from her Thai kitchen, using ingredients she can find in the United States.