Saturday, September 7, 2013

Tom Kha Kai

Tom Kha Kai is probably my favorite soup of all time. A few years ago a close friend's boyfriend and fellow culinary enthusiast 'El Capitan' showed me his way of preparing it. Since I always get a hot pot of this whenever I go out for Thai food, I was extremely stoked to learn how to make it at home. Although the ingredients were much more exotic than what I was accustomed to, it's a fairly simple soup to make. It takes some time, and a lot of tasting to get the perfect balance of flavors that suit one's own tastes. And it is very, very worth it. 

This soup can be made with a wide variety of add ins, and El Capitan favors lots of seafood in his version of Tom Kha. Since there are some shellfish allergies in my family, I only use chicken, which is what the 'kai' is for. Any asian grocery should have the ingredients you need for this, and they are all inexpensive. Most of them can be frozen as well, and are used in tons of other authentic Thai and Laos cuisine. I've included some photos of most of them so if you've never used them in your own cooking, you'll be able to find them with ease. 










Galangal and kaffir lime leaves can be well wrapped in wax paper then placed in a freezer bag and be frozen for up to 3 months. The palm sugar keeps for a very long time in your pantry, and the lemongrass is the only thing that can't be kept for longer than a week in the fridge. Palm sugar comes in large discs, or jars of smaller, tablespoon size pucks. I went for the puck variety since it was easier to gauge the amount used. Galangal looks similar to ginger, and is a bit similar in taste as well, yet there is a very noticeable difference, so it is pretty essential to use rather than ginger. The kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass and galangal are used to flavor the broth, which is the base of the soup and gives it its characteristic background of flavors. 

Here are some of the beautiful oyster mushrooms I bought for the soup. Normally straw mushrooms are used, yet I didn't find any fresh ones at the store, so I preferred these. They have a mild mushroom flavor, which is another important factor. You don't want any ingredient's presence to outweigh another's in this recipe, so it's important to use a subtly flavored mushroom. Cremini or shitake are definitely out. 

My favorite Thai restaurant has broccoli and snow peas in their tom kha, so that's what went into mine as well. Traditionally bird's eye chilis are used to add the heat, but since we were sharing this with a 2 year old, I backed off of those and relied on sambal, sriracha and good chili oil to spice up our own bowls. A couple of chicken breasts, lots of coconut milk, cilantro and good chicken stock, and you're in business baby.


2 quarts low sodium chicken broth, or homemade
5 14 ounce cans of your favorite full fat coconut milk
2 stalks lemongrass, pounded fiercely with the back of a knife & cut into thirds
8 - 12 kaffir lime leaves, depending on size
3 - 4 inch piece galangal, sliced
~3 palm sugar discs, crushed (this is where your tastes come into play - you may like this soup a tad sweeter than myself)
2 cups snow peas, halved
3 cups broccoli florets
12 - 16 ounces oyster mushrooms, stems removed and torn into bite sized pieces
2 - 3 boneless skinless chicken breasts
1/2 - 3/4 cup fish sauce (again, you may want more or less of this, so start small)
juice of 6 - 8 limes
1 bunch cilantro, leaves removed and set aside
lots of sambal, sriracha and chili oil to taste
cooked jasmine rice (optional)

In a very large pot (at least 6 quarts) over medium heat, add the chicken broth, coconut milk, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and galangal. Bring to a low simmer and dial back heat to low. Once at a simmer, let the ingredients steep for 30 minutes or so. Your kitchen should smell very fragrant, and the broth should taste quite strong. Remember, you will be adding quite a few other ingredients, and this infusion should not be diluted, but complimented. Remove the leaves, lemongrass and galangal with a slotted spoon and discard.

Keeping the heat on low, add the chicken breasts and poach till fully cooked, about 15 - 20 minutes depending on size. Remove and set aside to cool. Shred into large yet bite sized pieces.

Add the crushed palm sugar, lime juice and fish sauce. Then taste, taste, taste! I find that I like a lot of fish sauce in this. Although it is incredibly pungent, it helps develop the unique taste of this soup, and you may need more than you think. Ideally there should be an equal balance of sour, sweet, salty and spicy, with the major umami boost that the fish sauce provides. Some like a bit more lime than sugar, more spice than umami. Start with the minimal amounts and go from there. Ensure that the broth simmers for a few minutes with a few thorough stirs before tasting so that the additions are well incorporated.

Once you have a nice balance going in your soup, dial up the heat to medium and add the broccoli and mushrooms. If you'll be using straw mushrooms, use about 2 - 3 drained cans. Cook for 5 minutes before adding the snow peas and shredded chicken. Once the chicken is warmed through, its ready to serve.

Add a few sprigs or a handful of cilantro and sambal, srirach, and/or chili oil to taste. Serve over several spoonfuls of jasmine rice. Any leftover soup can be frozen for up to 1 month.

Recipe adapted from El Capitan (aka GT, Spacemage)

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