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Friday, January 20, 2012

tom kha gai soup

I am really a bit nervous to write about tom kha gai soup. It is my all-time most favorite soup in the world. I would probably say that it is my all-time favorite meal in the world too, but I want to reserve the right to revise that statement. I doubt it will ever happen, but I may want to pick a different favorite later.

For now, I'm a bit worried that I am going to tell you how amazing and wonderful and perfect it is, and then you aren't going to like it. Which would hurt the soup's feelings. It might also mean that we can't be friends anymore.

Tom kha gai soup is a Thai soup, made with coconut milk, mushrooms, and chicken. It is flavored with galanga root, lime leaves and lemongrass.

Because of all these different flavors, it is testing my ability to come up with just the right adjectives. I feel like I sound like a fourth-grade girl who just discovered the thesaurus.

It is citrusy and creamy and spicy and sweet. It has a bit of saltiness to it, a bit of umami (a word I hate, but what can you do when you need it?), a whole lot of delicious.

I think that if I were Thai, this would be the taste of childhood. It is comfort food at its best, something that makes you happy and warm and satisfied, but also something that can clear your sinuses and cure your cold. The flavor is complex, if I may say that without sounding like a tool. But at the same time it is simple and soothing.

I'm not sounding hyperbolic, am I? I actually don't think I'm doing the soup justice yet.

I must say that it does require some ingredients that you probably don't have on hand. You will have to go to an Asian Market to purchase them (I imagine there are plenty of ways to order them online... but going to an Asian market is like a field trip. It's awesome). If you don't see yourself going to a special market to buy the things you need for this dish, just promise me that you will order it next time you are at a Thai restaurant.

Actually, I went to three different Asian markets in my town, and although I am so lucky as to have three Asian markets within a couple of miles of me, I am not so lucky as to have any that sell Thai ingredients. In other words, it took leaving my town and heading 15 miles out to the grandmother of all Asian markets to get everything I needed. Once you find a market that actually carries Thai ingredients, though, there is no chance they won't have what you need to make tom kha gai.

Kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, galangal root, coconut milk and fish sauce will all be in a Thai market, because they are very very common in Thai foods. One-stop shopping, ma'am.

I ended up at 99 Ranch Market, which is apparently a major chain of Asian Markets. Like I said, it was like going on a field trip. That place has everything you could need to make Asian dishes...

Like a whole aisle of soy sauces...

 And a whole aisle of rice...

And for those who like to spend a bit less 
time in the kitchen, an entire aisle of ramen!

But I wasn't there for any of those things. I was there for:

Kaffir lime leaves, which are just what they sound like... the leaves of the kaffir lime tree. Before you put them in the soup, be sure to rub them in your fingers and inhale deeply. The lime scent is amazing. Although these can be chopped up real small and eaten, we are going to leave them whole to season the soup, before discarding them.

Galangal Root is the heart of the soup. Some recipes say that you can use ginger as a substitute, but don't believe them. Galangal is much more subtle than ginger. It is more earthy and sweet and doesn't have the bite that ginger has. Actually, the "Kha" in Tom Kha Gai means galangal. So really, leaving it out makes you a liar. This, too, can be copped finely and consumed, but for this soup, just saw away until you have 5 thin disks, use them to season the soup, and then toss 'em. It freezes well, so if you do go buy some, don't hesitate to buy a big piece.

Lemongrass is another one that can be eaten if it is prepared correctly, but once again we are going to let it flavor our soup and then we are going to toss it. My lemongrass came out of my Abundant Harvest Box, but you can get it an a Thai shop as well. 

Only use the bottom, white parts of the lemon grass. You can throw away the dry woody parts. Cut the thick white parts into 2-inch pieces, remove the outer leaves, and then bruise it with the back of your knife.  This helps release the flavor. Be sure to take a big whiff of this one too, before throwing it in the pot. Lemony paradise.

Finally, I got my fish sauce and coconut milk at the asian market as well. I know fish sauce doesn't sound appetizing. Especially if you have gotten a fishvorce. Whatever you do, don't take a sniff in the direction of the fish sauce. But do use it. It adds most of the soup's saltiness, most of the umami (there's that word again), and it balances the sweet and citrusy perfectly. Just don't try tasting it alone. Believe me, I. do. not. eat. things from the sea. I don't like the taste, the smell, the texture. I don't even like it when you eat a tuna fish sandwich. But I do include the fish sauce, and I have never regretted it.

So, okay. I feel exhausted after gathering our supplies for this soup, but really making it is quiet simple.

And here it is:

two cans (14 ounces each) coconut milk
4 cups chicken broth
5 slices (1/4 inch thick) galangal root
3 stalks lemongrass (lower, white parts only cut into 2-3 inch segments and bruised)
5 kaffir lime leaves
fish sauce, to taste (probably about 2-3 tablespoons)
8 ounces mushrooms (I use regular white mushrooms, sliced, but I believe straw mushrooms are more traditional, if you can find them.)
2 skinless, boneless chicken breasts cut into bite-sized pieces
juice from 2 limes
bird's eye chiles are almost always included, but I am a spice whimp, so I leave them out

First, you need to make the most delicious broth ever. Combine the coconut milk, chicken stock, galangal, lime leaves, and lemongrass. Bring it just to a boil and then turn it down to simmer. The longer you can let it simmer the better, but aim for at least half an hour.

Add the fish sauce and let it simmer another 15 minutes or so. This will really give it some salty meaty flavor. If you taste it at this point, you might be wondering what all the fuss is about. It isn't great yet. But it will be!

Add the mushrooms and the chicken, and continue to simmer just until the chicken is cooked through. Don't let it get tough. You don't want to be distracted from the deliciousness of it all by having to chew the meat.

Once the chicken is cooked, add the lime juice. Garnish with the cilantro and the chile peppers, if you are using them.

Enjoy every last drop!