It is deeply heartening and – I must say, rare – that a single local dish will grab the attention of the entire world. Tom kha gai did just that! But with great fame comes the risk of the dish losing its essence. You see, if a dish can be found on the menu at a Thai restaurant in the heart of rural America – with perhaps very few or no Thai people within a 50 kilometer radius – I would not easily trust that restaurant’s interpretation of it.
However, the truth of the matter is that this is not a complicated dish to make – and so very delicious.
It is the simple, elegant dishes like this one that bring local flavors to your palate and your table. And, truly, it is almost impossible not to welcome the soothing silkiness of this warm and creamy coconut soup that focuses on the essentials – tastiness.
Additional reading: An Ancient Siamese Recipe for Tom Kha Pet (1890 AD) – Duck Simmered in Light Coconut Cream and Young Galangal, and Served with Sour-Sweet Roasted Chili Jam (Tom Kha Bpet; ต้มข่าเป็ด จิ้มน้ำพริกเผาแบบโบราณ)
- 300 gr chicken breasts
- 1 cup coconut milk
- 2 cups coconut cream
- 2 cups water
- 2 galangal preferably mature galangal, about 5cm (2″) each
- 6-8 large straw mushrooms
- 1/4 cup galangal preferably young galangal, thinly chopped
- 2 tablespoons lemongrass (ตะไคร้)
- 4-5 kaffir lime leaves
- 3 tablespoons fish sauce (น้ำปลา)
- 3 tablespoons lime juice (น้ำมะนาว)
- 10 fresh bird's eye chili (kee noo suan) (พริกขี้หนูสวน)
- 1 stalk coriander
- Prepare fresh coconut cream and milk as described here or use canned coconut cream.
- Cut skinless chicken breasts into even bite-size pieces to assure even cooking. Cut at 45° across the meat fibers. To cut the chicken into beautiful pieces, place the chicken on the cutting board with the skin side down.
- Bring the coconut milk to a boil, (if using canned coconut, dilute a couple tablespoons of canned coconut cream with water to substitute).
- Add chicken and briefly cook for couple of minutes, or until only just a bit more than half done.
- Immediately remove the chicken, and set aside. (The residual heat will further cook the meat, which will remain moist and tender).
- Bring half of the coconut cream, mixed with the water, to a boil.
- Add two whole 5 cm-long (2″) galangal roots. Bruise the roots hard in a mortar and pestle. Simmer for about five minutes.
- Remove the bruised roots and discard.
- Add the sliced galangal and chopped lemon grass.
- Add the straw mushrooms.
- Continue simmering for 2 to 3 minutes on medium-low heat until fragrant.
- Season with fish sauce.
- Return the chicken to the soup.
- Add the remaining coconut cream to ensure a smooth and creamy texture; coconut cream tends to separate if cooked for too long.
- Add the hand-torn kaffir lime leaves, and season with lime juice (equal in amount to the fish sauce); add the bird’s eye chilies.
- Serve hot, garnished with coriander leaves.