One of the most rewarding experiences of a recent trip to Thailand was the chance to attend a cooking school, where I witnessed first hand how many recognizable Thai dishes were really made. For the most part, each was lighter and more dynamic than I had previously encountered, but they were also more complicated, with many using loads of ingredients that would be difficult to track down back in the States.
Except, that is, for a very simple and satisfying bowl of Tom Kha Gai. This coconut milk and chicken soup soup can be whipped up quickly, but thanks to a few key ingredients, it has tremendous depth of flavor. I couldn't wait to get back to try out the recipe.
Thing is, I forgot my detailed notes back in Bangkok. So now I have this beautiful memory of this soup, and I'm trying to piece it back together. No doubt, some of the proportions are probably off, but the main points are definitely here. Specifically, galangal and lemongrass are simmered with chicken stock and then removed, so that each sip has their fragrant fingerprint. Also, the chiles aren't added until the very end, something that seemed off to me at the time. But you also smash them, making them extra ready to give up their heat. The longer they hang out in the soup, the hotter each sip becomes. Linger too long and you may start to feel the burn.
Galangal used to be hard to track down, but I feel like I've been seeing it around more lately. I can't say the same about makrut lime leaves, which I picked up at a local Thai grocery store. Leave them out if you can't find them. Otherwise, the rest of these ingredients are easy to track down.
- 20 ounces chicken stock
- 2-inch piece of galangal, peeled, half cut into slices, half cut into matchsticks (see note)
- 2 stalks lemongrass, ends trimmed, tough outer leaves removed, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 4 makrut lime leaves, crumpled by hand (see note)
- 1 (13.5 ounce) can coconut milk
- 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, sliced thinly against the grain
- 1/2 pound mushrooms (straw mushrooms if possible, but otherwise cremini or button), ends removed, sliced
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce, plus more for serving
- 1 tablespoon juice from 1 lime, plus more for serving
- 4 hot red chilis (such as Thai bird) ends trimmed, smashed with a knife
- Handful fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
Combine stock, galangal, lemongrass, and lime leaf in a medium saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, and then reduce heat to maintain a simmer for 10 minutes. Discard the galangal and lemongrass.
Add the coconut milk and increase heat to medium. Add chicken, mushrooms, galangal matchsticks, and makrut lime leaves, and cook until the chicken is completely cooked and the mushrooms are tender, about 5 minutes.
Add the fish sauce, lime juice, and red chiles. Remove from heat. Divide the soup between four bowls, making sure each has a red chile. Garnish with cilantro. Adjust flavor with more lime juice and fish sauce as necessary.
Galangal and makrut lime leaves can be found at Southeast Asian supermarkets. If unavailable, ginger can be substituted for galangal, and 4 strips of lime zest can be substituted for lime leaves.