There's something I should admit to right now: I never ate tom kha gai when I was actually in Thailand two years ago, but I should have. My first experience with the smooth, light coconut-lemongrass soup was at a restaurant in London last year, and I was sold.
Not that I didn't eat well in Thailand. There was curry, which was heavy and hot and completely without the bell peppers that they put in fake Thai curry here. There was the Chinese-inspired soup they sold in all the markets that was a broth with noodles and bean sprouts that came with a little condiment rack of chili oil, chili flakes and other dark sauces that I would load into my soup until it was so spicy that my eyes watered and my nose ran. And--the thing I miss the most--there were tiny fried coconut milk and corn cakes, shaped like little UFOs, that would come straight off the griddle and were worth burning your tongue on.
But back to tom kha gai. You might have seen it on Top Chef as one of Lisa's dishes in the finale a couple of months ago. (Her entire menu looked amazing. In fact, as much as I loved the soup when I ate it in London, it was seeing it on the show that gave me the undeniable urge to make it right now.) It's a soup that's meant to be served with a meal. The thick coconut milk cools the mouth between spicier dishes, and the lemongrass helps to cleanse the palate. The truth is, though, that I eat it as a meal.
The most important part of making this is having the real Thai ingredients. They're not obscure ones--you can find these at any Asian grocery store. I know fish sauce weirds some people out, but trust me on this: it's what makes the soup. I use canned vetetables (I know, I know,) but you could easily use fresh ones.
Now, unfortunately, I ate all of my soup before I could take a picture of it. All I have is the empty bowl and the beautiful spoon, given to me by a friend. I hope you forgive me.
Tom Kha Gai (Lemongrass Coconut Soup with Chicken)
Makes 2-3 servings
2 8 oz. cans coconut milk (not coconut cream)
1 8 oz. can chicken stock
3 one-inch chunks of galangal (Thai ginger)
2 stalks of lemongrass, bruised or cut into a tassel at the white end
1 can straw mushrooms
1 can baby corn
1 can bamboo shoots
2 chicken breasts, sliced
5-6 kaffir lime leaves, torn in half lengthwise
5-6 bruised Thai chilis (more if you like it spicy)
Fish sauce (I use Golden Boy brand)
Combine the coconut milk, chicken stock, galangal and lemongrass in a large pot over medium-high heat until it becomes fragrant. Season with the fish sauce, (which is used in Thai cooking in place of salt,) and palm sugar to taste. Add the bamboo shoots, which take the longest to cook. Simmer for 7-8 minutes and add the baby corn, mushrooms, and chicken. Simmer for an additional 4-5 minutes, then add the lime leaves and chilis and serve.