Saturday, 6 March 2010

Thai Coconut Chicken Soup AKA Tom Kha Gai

My stepson Christian is 14 years old now and as it turns out, he's becoming quite an enthusiastic cook. He was seven years old when I came into his life and like many kids, his palate was fairly unadventurous. I'll never forget the first time I cooked for him. It was spaghetti Bolognese (safe choice, I thought) but as it was the first time he'd had it made from scratch, he was so upset that he actually started gagging. That was the beginning of a years-long battle to get him to eat everything from roast pork to simple curries and stir-fries. I started bringing him into the kitchen to "help" me cook as a way to bond with him, and I started realizing that what ever I taught him to cook immediately became a favorite of his. I'll always remember the months-long period when if asked what he wanted for lunch/dinner his answer was always "Hoummus!", which was the first thing I taught him to make. Fast forward seven years, and he's now in his after school cooking club and has decided to enter his school Master Chef competition. He has to make two courses and has decided that he'd like to make Thai, as it's one of his favorites. Christian has decided on a favorite soup of his and a curry with jasmine rice. The soup recipe is below. Some of the ingredients are a little hard to find in regular grocery stores, so when I got to Chinatown or an Asian market I usually buy lots of them and freeze them. If you keep things like galangal, lemongrass and Thai basil (washed, leaves picked) in airtight containers, they will freeze well for a couple of months. Good grocery stores will have things like palm sugar, jasmine rice and fish sauce.

Tom Kha Gai (not my picture)
Serves 4 as a main course, 30 mins
A perfect balance of salty, sour, spicy and sweet is what makes this comforting coconut chicken soup totally addictive. It's really easy to make as long as you can get hold of the ingredients. This is my go-to soup when I come down with a nasty cold or flu. Packed with good stuff and the flavours are robust enough that if you're a little stuffy it still dances like little fireworks on your tongue.

750ml homemade or very good quality chicken stock
400ml coconut milk (low fat is fine if you like)
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, sliced approx 1 cm thick and cut into bite-sized pieces
Large handful mushrooms, sliced (or straw mushrooms if you can get them)
1 lemon grass stalks, bruised
4-5 kaffir lime leaves (fresh or dried)
1 5 cm piece galangal root, thickly sliced
2-3 fresh red chillies sliced thickly (remove seeds and membranes if you don't like it too spicy)
2 tsp palm sugar (or light brown sugar makes an ok sub)
handful picked fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves
juice of 3 limes
3 tbsp fish sauce (nam pla)

In a large saucepan, bring the the chicken stock, coconut milk, galangal, lemongrass, palm sugar, fish sauce and lime leaves to a boil and then reduce immediately and add the sliced chicken. Simmer for five minutes, until the chicken is cooked, then add the lime juice, chillies and mushrooms. Simmer for a further few minutes until the mushrooms just soft. Have a taste to check for sweetness/saltiness/tartness/spice and add sugar/fish sauce/lime juice/more chilli as needed and serve, stirring the fresh coriander leaves in at the last minute so that they keep their colour. I leave the inedible pieces of galangal, lime leaves and lemongrass in the soup, as it adds interest but if you have whiny family members, feel free to fish it out for them before you serve.

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