Tom Kha Gai and the Carnivorous Carnival
Book The Ninth: Freakishly Good Food
As they endeavor to solve the mystery of VFD and learn more about their own parents, Violet, Klaus and Sunny find themselves at Caligari Carnival, at the end of a dusty road in the hinterlands. Since Count Olaf and his evil associates are at the very same carnival, in cahoots with Madame Lulu, the strange-accented woman who runs things, the children must disguise themselves to fit in, and they end up staying in the Freak Caravan. Hugo, a seemingly nice man with a hunched back, is a great cook and makes a delicious pot of Tom Kha Gai for all to share.
Tom Kha Gai
In The Carnivorous Carnival, Lemony Snicket describes the Tom Kha Gai that Hugo makes as a "mixture of chicken, vegetables, fancy mushrooms, fresh ginger, coconut milk and water chestnuts...." To create our recipe, we did a little research into traditional Thai ingredients and found that Hugo's version is not necessarily authentic (though it sounds delicious).
Our recipe for Tom Kha Gai is based on the one we found at SheSimmers, the beautiful website of Leela Punyaratabandhu, who shares recipes and traditions from her Thai kitchen using ingredients she can find in the United States. According to Leela and other sources, the name Tom Kha Gai literally means boiled (tom) galangal (kha) chicken (gai).
Galangal is a rhizome that looks a lot like ginger (also a rhizome), but galangal is slightly sweeter, while ginger is slightly sharper. When eaten in the finished dish, galangal registers a tart sweetness. We found it in the freezer section of our local Asian market, along with the Thai "bird's eye" chiles and the kaffir lime leaves. We were surprised to find these ingredients frozen and weren't sure what to expect, but they all turned out magnificently, having lost nothing in appearance or flavor as far as we could tell. (A lesson in trusting your local Asian market to know their ingredients!)
Many American recipes can be found for this dish, some including ginger instead of galangal (an acceptable substitute if you can't find galangal), shiitake mushrooms (though Leela tells us they're too strong for this dish) and even added sugar (unnecessary, since good coconut milk provides natural sweetness). As with much of Thai cooking, this dish would traditionally call for lots of various chicken parts with bones in, skin on, and feet fully present. While to Americans this may seem unappealing, these pieces impart a rich depth of flavor to the finished dish.
Like Leela's recipe, ours uses American-friendly boneless-skinless pieces, but we opted for chicken thighs rather than breasts, since they are much more flavorful. We followed her technique of boiling and reducing chicken stock to intensify the flavor before adding it to the dish.
(Please also see the body of the recipe for notes on the confusing labeling of coconut milk, and how to choose a good one for this dish. )
Tom Kha Gai in Class
This recipe gave us a chance to discover many new ingredients in class!
Book The Tenth: Improvising on a Mountaintop
In The Slippery Slope, Sunny Baudelaire is being held by Count Olaf and his henchpeople at the frozen summit of Mount Fraught, and, even worse, is forced to cook for them. Sunny is becoming something of a chef, using her four sharp teeth to cut up ingredients and developing a sophisticated and discerning palate.
But cooking for evil villains is never pleasant, and to make things worse, the only ingredients to work with are frozen in the trunk of Olaf's car. Sunny creates a dish called False Spring Rolls, a variety of frozen vegetables wrapped in spinach leaves, and serves them to the villains in honor of False Spring, a natural phenomenon that is occurring any day now.