Saturday, January 05, 2008

Gai Tom Ka (Thai coconut and galangal soup)

Both my SO and I have gotten great New Year's presents: little viral bundles of joy. We don't know who gave them to us, but they've certainly been having great fun in our respiratory systems.

So, we've been in the mood for soups, and today my SO cooked up our favorite Thai soup. If you've eaten at Thai restaurants, you'll likely recognize this soup (or something similar). This soup is loaded with strong flavors (galangal, lemongrass, chili peppers, and the traditional Thai fish sauce), and thus should always be served with copious quantities of plain rice (we mix the rice right into the soup as we eat). This soup is the perfect dish for a cold winter day, and since it made for a delicious sick-day breakfast1, it's this week's end-of-the-week recipe blogging post.

8 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup fish sauce
4-inch piece fresh galangal (or ginger), roughly chopped (unpeeled)
2 4-inch pieces of lemongrass stalk, washed and chopped into 1/4-1/2-inch long pieces
10 kaffir lime leaves, torn into several pieces (optional)
4 red jalapeƱos or other chili peppers, seeded, deveined, and cut into strips
2/3 cup lime juice (or lemon juice)
1 can (~13.5 fl. oz.) coconut milk
1/2 - 1 pound chicken (sliced into ~1/4-inch-thick slices) and/or tofu (cut into 1/4 - 1/2-inch cubes)
chopped cilantro (optional; as a garnish)
cooked white or brown rice (we'd suggest cooking about 2/3 - 1 cup of dry white or brown rice per large bowlful of soup)

0. Prepare plain white or brown rice to serve with the soup. We cook up about 2 cups dry white rice for the two of us when we make this soup for a full meal, and have relatively little rice left over but have about half the soup left over.
1. Add the chicken stock and fish sauce to a pot and bring to a simmer.
2. If you have cheesecloth available, wrap the galangal (or ginger), lemongrass, and lime leaves in a large piece of it and tie into a bundle (to make removing them from the broth easier).
3. Add the galangal (or ginger), lemongrass, and lime leaves to the simmering stock, and cook for 10 minutes.
4. If you haven't wrapped the galangal (or ginger), lemongrass, and lime leaves in cheesecloth, strain them out of the broth now.
5. Add the lime (or lemon) juice and jalapeƱos, and continue simmering for another 10 minutes.
6. If you used cheesecloth (in step 2), remove the cheesecloth bundle now. Add the coconut milk and chicken and/or tofu, and simmer until the chicken is cooked and/or the tofu is heated through (~3 minutes).
7. Serve along with plain white or brown steamed rice, garnished with chopped cilantro (if desired).


Obtaining the ingredients for this dish requires finding a market that stocks Asian ingredients. In our area, fish sauce and coconut milk can be found in the Asian section of most supermarkets, but items like fresh lemongrass, galangal, and lime leaves are found only in specialty Asian markets that stock Thai ingredients (look in the produce section).

Don't despair if you can't find fresh galangal or lime leaves; we've made the soup many times using just fresh ginger in place of the galangal and omitting the lime leaves, and it's been fine. While galangal and ginger don't taste identical, they're fairly similar. Galangal, ginger, and lime leaves store fine for months in the freezer (ginger and galangal don't even have to be wrapped to freeze). However, we would advise against using dried ginger or galangal, as the drying process dramatically changes their flavors. We don't know how using dried lemongrass would affect the soup, as we always use fresh (see below). We've never served the soup with the cilantro garnish, but it is traditional.

If you live in the Southern California area and know that you like Thai food, you might consider growing your own lemongrass, as it does well here. We planted a tiny plant a few years ago, and besides rare waterings it's just about taken care of itself (while growing into a nice-smelling, rather attractive 5-foot wide plant). Note that lemongrass leaves are very sharp along the edges, so wear gloves while harvesting.

We based this recipe on one in Bhumichitr (1988).

Bhumichitr, Vatcharin, 1988. The Taste of Thailand. MacMillan, NY.

1 And, since the soup was so strongly flavored, we could actually taste it with our cold-impaired senses!

1 comment:

Radagast said...

Importing comments:

In California you can also grow lemon myrtle, an Australian tree that is just like lemongrass only more so. It's quite a pretty small tree, too.