Thai Chicken Coconut Soup (Tom Ka Gai)
Thai Chicken Coconut Soup (Tom Ka Gai Recipe)
When I was in Los Angeles a few years ago, I stopped by the now-closed (sniff sniff) The Cook’s Library Bookstore and picked up a copy of Tessa Kiros’ Apples For Jam, A Colorful Cookbook fully intending it to be a gift for a friend, but after an afternoon alone with the cookbook, I decided to keep it for myself and bought her a bag of donuts instead. What a good friend I am. (WHAAAT? Hey, at least I didn’t arrive empty-handed!)
Tessa’s publisher, Andrew McMeel sent me a copy of her latest book, Falling Cloudberries, A World of Family Recipes which is part of Gourmet’s Cookbook Club. Tessa Kiro was born in London to a Finnish mother and Greek father, has lived in South Africa and worked as chef in Sydney, Athens, Mexico and London. Her life of global travels inspired this book with nearly 400 pages of recipes, stories and stunning color photographs (170 recipes, 185 color photos).
I wanted to share a recipe with you from her Falling Cloudberries book – Tom Ka Gai Soup, or Thai Chicken Coconut Soup. I’m sure you’ve had this soup before if you’re a fan of Thai food. The Tom Ka Gai soup is warm, tingly and creamy.
About Kaffir Limes Leaves (or Makrut)
Thai Chicken Coconut Soup (Tom Ka Gai) uses fresh kaffir lime leaves to give it that unmistakable Thai flavor and aroma. It’s citrusy, bright and its aroma is as exuberant as its taste.
And I’m lucky enough that in Florida the Kaffir Lime Tree grows like crazy. Even neglected, it looks like this:
While my tree doesn’t bear any fruit (I think something called “neglect” might have something to do with it) the leaves are plentiful. And the leaves are the valuable part of the tree, anyways. Another name for Kaffir Lime Leaves is “Makrut,” as I just found out that the word “Kaffir” is a deragatory term (I’m off to research and find out the details on that to confirm).
How to use Kaffir Lime Leaves
The Kaffir Lime Leaves come in doubles. It’s a pretty thick leaf with a tough spine in the middle. The Kaffir Lime Leaf is used whole and discarded after cooking, unless you cut into very thin slivers.
For Thai Chicken Coconut Soup (Tom Ka Gai), fold the Kaffir Lime Leaf in half along the spine and then tear, stopping at the tough spine.
So that when you open it, the Kaffir Lime Leaves stays whole. This makes it easy to pick out and discard after cooking. Tearing the Kaffir Lime Leaves opens the aroma and flavors. Now scratch the screen and a whiff…WOW!
Just throw the leaves, torn and whole into your soup, cook, then pick out and discard. Well, I guess you don’t have to. You can leave the Kaffir Lime Leaves in the soup and make your guests pick it out, or just push it aside with your spoon.
Substitutions for Kaffir Lime Leaves
If you don’t have access to fresh Kaffir Lime Leaves, you can find them at the Asian markets frozen or dried whole. You can also substitute Kaffir Lime Leaves with thick strips of lime peel. Take a whole lime and a vegetable peeler. Peel thick strips, avoiding the white bitter pith. You just want the green. Use your hands to tear a few places along the strip or just crush/fold the strip to bruise it a bit to release its flavor and aroma. Discard after cooking. Use one 2-inch x 1-inch strip of lime peel for every Kaffir Lime Leaf the recipe calls for.
Photo and recipe of Thai Chicken Coconut Soup (Tom Ka Gai) courtesy of my buddies at Andrews McMeel Publishing.
A note on galangal/ginger: while often used together, they are not the same ingredient and taste very different! Many recipes will have you substitute ginger for galangal (which can be difficult to find), which isn't really a "substitute." Think of it as - if you can't get galangal, ginger would be great in this soup too. Find galangal at the Asian market - sometimes you can get fresh galangal otherwise you may find it frozen. ~jaden
Tessa's intro: "I just wouldn’t cope with not knowing how to make some version of this soup. I love it. You can add a few mushrooms, a couple of fresh spinach leaves or some slices of zucchini in with the chicken. Also wonderful instead of the chicken is to cook some large, shelled shrimp on a barbecue or grill pan and toss them into the soup just before serving. The fish sauce is the salt in this soup so adjust the quantities according to your taste (and the same with the chile). I like it not too strong. Keep the cilantro stems in your freezer to add flavor to a broth or stew."
- 1-1/2 inch piece of galangal or ginger peeled and sliced
- small bunch fresh cilantro with stem about 8 stems worth of cilantro, reserving some cilantro leaves for serving
- 4 kaffir lime leaves makrut, torn
- 1 stem lemongrass halved lengthways
- 3 tablespoons fish sauce
- juice of 2 small limes
- 1-3/4 cups coconut milk
- 1/2 pound skinless chicken breast cut into thin strips
- 1 red chile seeded and sliced
Put the galangal, cilantro roots, lime leaves, lemongrass and 4 cups of water in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Add the fish sauce and lime juice, decrease the heat, and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove the cilantro and discard.
Add the coconut milk, bring back to a simmer for a couple of minutes. Give the broth a quick taste. Too sour? Add more coconut milk or water. Not salty enough? Add a couple dashes more of fish sauce.
Add the chicken pieces and cook for just a minute or so, until the chicken is soft and milky looking and cooked through.
Throw in the chili and stir. Serve in bowls with the cilantro leaves roughly chopped and scattered over the top.
Recipe courtesy of Falling Cloudberries, A World of Family Recipes by Tessa Kiros/Andrews McMeel Publishing