I lived in Thailand for over three years, and one of my favorite things was the food. It was not only delicious, but also very cheap–often $1 or less per meal, if you didn’t mind eating at a stand beside the road, or a little hole-in-the-wall sort of place. And it was convenient–there were little stands and restaurants and markets everywhere. As a result, I bought food much more often than I cooked while I was living there.
Since I’ve been home, however, suddenly the Thai food that I crave is hard to find, inconvenient, expensive, and frankly, never as good as I hope it will be. So I’ve tried to cook some of my favorite things myself. The one that I make the most often is actually my very favorite Thai food, ต้มข่าไก่ (the closest English equivalent is Tom Ka Gai). Mom calls it Blizzard Soup, because she says if she ever got caught in a blizzard it’s what she’d want to eat when she got home. It’s got creamy coconut milk, offset with the tang of lime, the more subtle flavors of galangal and lemongrass, and the heat of Thai chilis that warms you up inside: it combines for a pop of flavor that explodes in your mouth. It’s also loaded with mushrooms–my favorite–and other veggies as well, so it’s quite good for you.
Mom mentioned the soup in her last blog post, and someone asked for the recipe, and I thought it might be easier to write a post about it than to try to write out a recipe. I tend to just kind of throw things in and not measure very much when I make it, but I’ll try to at least give you approximate amounts.
There are a few ingredients that you will probably want to pick up at an Asian grocery store. For locals, I recommend Sunrise Asian Market in Eugene, and Rice-N-Spice in Corvallis. (Rice-N-Spice looks very seedy from the outside, but I promise it’s fine inside.)
- Galangal. This is a root spice, kind of like ginger, but better. It’s usually in the refrigerated section, often in a tub of water. I usually use a chunk about the size of the one in the picture, or a little smaller, for a batch of soup. It will go bad in a week or two if it’s not used.
- Lemongrass. These long, woody stalks are also usually refrigerated. I usually use about 3 in a recipe. Lemongrass lasts pretty long in the fridge.
- Thai chilis. You don’t actually need very many, and they usually come in a pretty big package. Be warned, they are very spicy.
- Fish sauce. They might have this in your local grocery store as well, but I recommend getting a brand that comes from Thailand or another Asian country, and looks authentic. (don’t get Thai Kitchen brand) If you’re not used to fish sauce, you’ll think it smells disgusting, but in small doses it gives really nice flavor. Fish sauce is included in just about every Thai dish I can think of–I think it’s the most important ingredient in Thai cuisine.
- Coconut milk. You can find this at your grocery store as well, I’m sure, but I recommend getting Thai coconut milk, which has better flavor and consistency. I really like this brand that comes in cardboard cartons. Leftover coconut milk can be kept in the fridge in a sealed container for a few weeks. I like it in iced coffee, or for making curry.
- Kaffir lime leaves. I’ve never found them, but if your store has them, they make a good authentic addition. They should be bruised a little and added in at the same step as the galengal and lemongrass.
All right, on to the recipe:
8 cups chicken stock
4-6 boneless, skinless, chicken thighs, cut into small pieces (chicken breast is fine as well)
2-inch chunk of galangal, cut into approximately ⅛-inch slices
3 thai chilis, either cut into ½ inch pieces, or just crushed a little in a mortar and pestle. You want them to release a little flavor, but still be in big enough pieces that people can see them and don’t accidentally eat them. (I like this amount of spice, which I think is sort of a medium spicy. Feel free to adjust for personal preference, or just forget about them if you don’t like spicy food)
3 stalks of lemongrass. Remove the dry outer layers until you’re left with the solid inner stalks, hit them with the dull side of a knife, up and down the stalk, to bruise them and release the flavor, and then slice them into approximately 2-inch pieces.
½ large onion, diced (Thai people make about 1-inch chunks, but I cut them smaller)
1½-2 cups mushrooms, in slices or chunks. If you want to really be authentic, you can use oyster mushrooms, but I prefer just your basic grocery store mushroom.
1 cup diced tomatoes
About 2 cans of coconut milk
Juice from 2-3 limes
Fish sauce to taste
- Bring the chicken stock, galangal, lemongrass, and chilis to a boil in a large pot. Let simmer for at least 10 minutes.
- Add the chicken, and stir. Simmer for a few more minutes.
- Add onion, cook a little, then add mushrooms.
- After a minute or two, when everything looks done enough, turn down the heat. Add the coconut milk, lime juice, and fish sauce. I don’t usually put in all of the second can of coconut milk, and I start with a couple of teaspoons of fish sauce and then add more if it doesn’t seem salty enough. Same with the lime juice: start with a little, and add more if it seems like it needs more flavor. Add the tomatoes last, so that they don’t get too mushy.
The lemongrass and galengal are not meant to be eaten, but only to flavor the broth, and I personally don’t recommend eating the chilis as well, unless you love extremely spicy food. I just let people pick these things out as they eat, but if you wanted to you could strain them out before adding the chicken.
Thai people always eat this soup with rice, specifically Jasmine rice, and I highly recommend it as well. Jasmine rice is readily available in normal grocery stores, and if you want a really good deal you can get a 20 lb bag at the Asian market for a pretty low price per pound. It takes less water than other rice, and I think it’s less mushy and has better flavor in the end.
When I cook it, I always rinse my rice first by covering it with water, swirling it around, and then draining it off, several times. You’ll see sort of a white starchy powder rinsing off. After it’s rinsed it’s obviously already wet, so then I add just a little over 1 cup of water per cup of rice, and cook it in the rice cooker. For my family I usually do 3 cups of rice, rinsed, and add about 3 ⅓ cup of water. It can take some trial and error to figure out the right amounts, but the rice should be done, not crunchy, but also have clearly defined grains and not mushy or soggy. And one more tip from my Thai friend Laila: if you wait 10 minutes after the rice cooker is done before you open it, it won’t stick nearly as much on the bottom.
This soup is usually served in bowls beside a plate of rice. You can spoon it over your rice, put some rice on your spoon and then dip it in the bowl to add the broth, or just mix them together, however you desire.
I also like to make a Thai style omelet to serve with this. To do this, mix 5 eggs, ¼ cup very finely diced onion, 1 teaspoon cornstarch, 1 teaspoon water, 1 teaspoon fish sauce, and ½ teaspoon fresh lime juice (once again, I don’t measure these things, so feel free to adjust to suit your own taste). Beat until well mixed and foamy. Heat a nice layer of oil in a frying pan. Test it with a tiny bit of the egg mixture to make sure it’s hot and sizzling. If it is, pour in the egg mixture. As it cooks, push back the edges and tilt the pan so that the runny egg can fill it. When there’s not enough runny egg to run anymore, flip it, preferably with that cool toss-in-the-air flipping trick. (It works for me about 50% of the time). Cook it on the other side (it doesn’t take very long), and you’re done!
These amounts feed myself, my parents, and two sisters, with enough soup and rice left over for lunches for a couple of days. We usually eat all of the omelet, but it doesn’t keep very well anyway.
If you’re interested in more Thai cooking, my favorite resource for authentic recipes is Hot Thai Kitchen on youtube.
Also, if any of you wanted the recipe for the salted caramel chocolate cake also featured on my mom’s blog, it’s right here.
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