Tom Kha Gai — Thai coconut soup

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A traditional and tasty Thai soup, this is my favorite comparison point between Thai restaurants and an excellent twist on chicken soup for cold winter days.
A traditional and tasty Thai soup, this is my favorite comparison point between Thai restaurants and an excellent twist on chicken soup for cold winter days.

A traditional and tasty Thai soup – Tom Kha Gai, this is my favorite comparison point between Thai restaurants and an excellent twist on chicken soup for cold winter days. I’m a huge fan of coconut, chicken soup, and creamy soups in general, so it’s a winner for me.

Of course, making it at home means I can customize it to my preferences. It’s surprisingly easy to make! This recipe is loosely adapted from David Johnson’s Thai Food, a brick-sized comprehensive guide to Thai cooking.

Note that you can make a pescatarian version (fish stock, shrimp instead of chicken) or even vegetarian or vegan (veg stock, tofu for chicken, soy sauce for fish sauce) though the latter will lack some of the pungency that only comes with fish sauce.

Tools and Ingredients

This recipe of Tom Kha Gai scales beautifully – just multiply the ingredients below. I’ve included substitutions for ingredients you may not have easily at hand, but a trip by an asian grocery will turn up everything on this list handily. I buy lots of lemongrass and galanga ahead, then chop and freeze in pre-sorted ziplok bags for future use. They keep quite well. You can also do this with the shallots, coriander root, and kaffir lime leaves.

Note that you can make a pescatarian version (fish stock, shrimp instead of chicken) or even vegetarian or vegan (veg stock, tofu for chicken, soy sauce for fish sauce) though the latter will lack some of the pungency that only comes with fish sauce.
Note that you can make a pescatarian version (fish stock, shrimp instead of chicken) or even vegetarian or vegan (veg stock, tofu for chicken, soy sauce for fish sauce) though the latter will lack some of the pungency that only comes with fish sauce.

Broth:
1 can coconut milk
2-3 cups chicken stock (homemade is best, then the stuff in cartons; boullion cubes are a last resort.)
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon palm sugar (I usually substitute brown sugar)
2 stalks fresh lemongrass, washed and choppped in chunks (dried lemongrass is far inferior – punch it up with extra lime juice and zest at the end if you’re forced to go this route)
3 red shallots, peeled and chunked (I often substitute 3 smashed cloves of garlic plus a bit of onion)
2 coriander roots, scraped (I usually substitute a pinch of whole coriander seed plus a handful of fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves)
2 chili peppers, halved (pick your favorite type, and modify number to suit your spice taste)
1.5 inch chunk of galanga root, chunked (ginger is in the same family, but tastes totally different – galanga TOTALLY makes the flavor of this dish. If you can’t get this locally, travel to a nearby city and visit the asian markets or scour the internets, buy a pound, then freeze what you can’t use now. It’s a floral flavor that you’ll definitely recognize if you’ve had tom kha gai before.)
3 kaffir lime leaves, coarsely chopped (I have a kaffir lime tree in my yard, but you can substitute lime zest if necessary. It just won’t be as fragrant and complex.)
1 teaspoon chili garlic sauce (optional, and kind of a cheat, but often good.)

Another Thai food: Gaeng som (Sour soup)

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