“Tom Kha Gai” is the same thing as “Tom Kha Kai”. My friend and colleague, Vorapun, says that the latter word means “Chicken” in Thai depending on where exactly one is from in Thailand. I originally thought that it all meant “Boiled Galangal Soup” but, as she says, that isn't exactly the case. It's actually roughly translated into “Galangal and Chicken Soup”. And let me tell you – like any chicken soup, it really is the panacea for any cold. I tend to prefer my mother's Chicken Noodle Soup in the winter. If I get a cold in the summer? I seek out a more exotic kind of soup.
But hold on. Galangal? “Gal-Lang-Guh” Wait. What is it? Is it a new character from Game of Thrones? Is it a new Star Wars champion? Not exactly. Galangal is called “kha” in Thailand and is very similar to ginger in look and texture – but it is not the same as ginger. Ginger is a root and tends to be sort of fragrant and easy to peel and has a mild spicy sweet and clean flavor. Galangal is very hard and woody, although the center is usually a little softer and juicier than its woody exterior. Galangal also tastes different than ginger. It's more piney and sharp, with a strong citrus scent. It gives, oddly, both an earthy note and a higher citrus note to curry pastes and dishes. Galangal has a distinct peppery flavour and is used in curry pastes, stir fried dishes and soups. Often times, it is also used along with ginger – so it's understandable why they are so often confused for the other.
Thai cooking espcially uses galangal. (Actually – so does a lot of medieval and Renaissance era cooking. The Game of Thrones Cookbook, A Feast of Ice and Fire by Chelsea Monroe-Cassel and Sariann Lehrer uses quite a bit of galangal albeit normally dried and powdered)
Some grocery stores also stock dried galangal, but I get mine from a fellow Etsian (The Kitchen Imp she makes her own everything. I bought her stuff for this posting. It is delish. So is the whole North African Spice Sampler. Go. Get it. You won't be sorry. Plus, you'll be supporting American Small Businesses....which is awesome.) on Etsy. I rarely use it, so I feel getting it whole and dried is a great way to go...so I'll always have it on hand whenever I need it. Now, obviously, fresh is always better. In Chicago, we are kind of lucky to have at least three large Asian Markets at which we can obtain this lovely deliciousness.
Until next time: East lustfully, enjoy. Repeat.
ERIN'S "THAI INSPIRED" TOM KHA GAI
SKILL LEVEL: Easy Breezy
PREP TIME: Roughly 10 Minutes
MARINADE TIME: None
COOK TIME: 30 minutes
YIELDS: 4 servings or whether or not you want to share.
ANY CRAZY TOOLS REQUIRED? Just a little patience. Cooking with pure coconut milk...to get it right...takes a whole lotta love. Get into it.
THE FINE PRINT. Thai tom kha gai is a popular well balanced and flavorful Thai soup. It can be spicy – it can be mild. It can be vegan – It can be an omnivore's delight. I say “inspired” because I tend to add things not normally in traditional ...like shrimp. Which is awesome. I do shake it up often and vary the ingredients a bit....so....inspired by seeemed more appropriate.
As to the chilies – I love a hot haute soup. However, I've also been known to use bell peppers – for those who don't like a lick of heat at all. So if that's your taste, then I'd say one small red, green or yellow bell pepper thinly sliced in place of the 5-10 Thai Chilies would suffice.
- Protein of Choice (I tend to use both Chicken and Shrimp but you can certainly use Tofu)
- 6 cups coconut milk
- 3” chunk of galangal
- 4 stalks of lemongrass
- 1 big white onion
- 2 tomatoes
- 6 kaffir lime leaves
- 2 cups mushrooms (it is traditional to use oyster mushrooms, but you can use what you like, really)
- 5 - 10 Thai chilies
- ½ teaspoon salt (to taste)
- 4 tablespoons of lime juice
- a handful of cilantro, brused and chopped small.
GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS. Dude. It's really not all that difficult. I just separated out the steps....it really does only take about 30 minutes.
STEP ONE. First take a thumb sized chunk of galangal, cut off the stems, and cut the root part into thin slices. It can be a little tough, so you might have to smack it into submission with top of your knife with your palm.
STEP TWO. Next grab your lemongrass, slice off the bottoms, pull off the sort of grody outer skin layer, and then slice the lemongrass diagonally into about 1 inch strips. (This is done because the essense of lemongrass will ease into the soup more efficiently)
STEP THREE. Turn on your stove to medium heat, and add about 3 cups (or ½) of the coconut milk to a medium sized saucepan. Put the pot on the heat and immediately toss in the sliced galangal and lemongrass.
STEP FOUR. As your coconut milk begins to heat, move back over to your cutting board and slice up the chicken into strips.
STEP FIVE. Just before the coconut milk comes to a boil, add the chicken, and then add the other remaining 3 cups of coconut milk. Now, turn down the heat to a medium low, as you don’t want the coconut milk to heat too fast or burn. If it burns you will be a very very sad panda. Simmer simmer simmmer and simmer this soup.
STEP SIX. Prepare your Thai chilies by peeling off the stems and then just slice them diagonally. Go ahead and add them directly to the soup.
STEP SEVEN. Give the soup a quick stir, and then add the mushrooms. Say nice things to your coconut milk...be nice and stir it frequently.
STEP EIGHT. Mix your tom kha gai slowly and gently, for about 5 - 10 minutes, making sure it doesn’t come to a full boil - and if it does - turn down the heat to even lower. What you want: the chicken, mushrooms, lemongrass, the galangal (and soon also the onions, tomatoes, and other ingredients to be fully cooked) but – you do not want to overcook the coconut milk.
STEP NINE. Move back over to your cutting board and peel and slice the white onion into thick wedges (if your onion is really big, just use 1). Immediately toss the onion wedges into the soup.
STEP TEN. Next, cut your tomatoes in the same way as your onions, into thick wedges and add them into the soup as well.
STEP ELEVEN. Break the Keffir Lime Leaves with your hands and toss them directly into the soup. (Add the shrimp if you're gonna. They do NOT need a long time to cook and often will almost immediately upon being added to the party)
STEP TWELVE. Now add about ½ teaspoon of salt to begin with (taste to add more). Make sure you do some taste-testing to make sure it’s salty and sour enough. You may need to add a little extra salt or lime juice to get the flavor you want. After about 5 - 10 minutes of cooking, go ahead and turn off the heat completely. Add the cilantro to the soup. Give it a quick stir, and the cilantro will cook enough from the already hot soup.
This dish is then ready to serve....as a soup....or...over rice. Your choice!