Because I’ve spent the last week eating nothing but frozen grapes and sparkling red wine, and also because I’ve blown all my body’s sodium out my eye-holes, it was time to eat something salty and full of coconut milk.
One of my favorite things ever is the Thai dish tom kha gai, or a chicken and coconut-broth soup heavily scented with the root herb galangal. The soup simply cannot be made without galangal, so this is yet another of my food rants that will torture everyone not within a reasonable distance of a well-stocked Asian market.
Galangal looks almost exactly like ginger root, but tastes nothing like it. Where ginger is sharp and spicy, galangal is floral, resinous and arcane. There’s nothing like it in the world. The good news is that like ginger, galangal freezes well — just slice it up first for easy use later — so if you find it, stock up.
But I’m not in the mood to draft an exegesis on tom kha gai for you. If you’re really curious, Leela at She Simmers can tell you all about it. My recipe is based heavily on hers, though I’m not sure she’d want my screwed up Caucasian-American version associated with hers. What I’ll tell you is that my favorite version of tom kha gai was from a Thai restaurant in Olympia that they themselves no longer even make as good since they changed ownership in 2010. It was so deeply layered, so complex and impossibly exotic, but it also had something that no other tom kha gai had: an orange oil floating on top. Not a lot, just little orange spots where the oil floated. I asked the restaurant and they said “spices.” No further help. And I gave up trying to recreate it. Until I read She Simmers.
There on her post about tom kha gai was a photo – and not even the first photo, but halfway down the page – of the soup. Orange-colored oil! And offhandedly she mentions that adding nam prik pao, or Thai roasted chili paste, is the orange oil culprit. She advises that it isn’t traditional, but I didn’t even shut my computer down or close the door behind me as I ran to the subway to ride down to Los Angeles’ Thai Town.
NAM PRIK PAO! It helps if you yell it.
This stuff is a fucking miracle. This is the condiment I’ve been missing all my life: unctuous, burny, sweet, salty, fishy, oniony, everything that is good about the world. That’s it, that’s what it is. Nam prik pao is an affirmation of life. And don’t get scared off it if you’re not crazy about fishy and/or oniony things – the product transcends the sum of the parts. It’s basically a jar full of FLAVOR. In fact, I’d say the first thing you’d taste is salty-sweet. This particular brand isn’t very spicy by my tastes, but the chili, anchovy, shrimp and shallot makes for this well-balanced and sort of unidentifiable savory foundation.
Added to my tom kha gai, it was the single secret ingredient that for years I had feared unfindable.
At She Simmers’ suggestion, the next day I had it spread on a grilled cheese sandwich (consumed with the leftover tom kha gai) and it was another epiphany. I hadn’t realized that grilled cheese was missing something. But it is.
Bear with me while I spend the next week Googling what else nam prik pao is used in.
Whitey Tom Kha Gai
there are no substitutions in this recipe. lemon juice cannot be subbed for lime. ginger cannot be subbed for galangal. i’d maybe allow for white meat chicken instead of dark, but just don’t tell me about it. anyway, though the ingredients may be elusive, the recipe itself is dead simple.
2 14oz. cans sodium-free chicken broth
1 knob of fresh galangal (about the size of a large lime) sliced thin
1 stalk fresh lemongrass, chopped into 1/4 inch slices
6 keffir lime leaves, each torn in half
handful of fresh mushrooms, preferably oyster or chanterelle, sliced
2 carrots, sliced thin
1/2lb. (about 3 or 4) boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite-size pieces
2 Tbsp. sugar
2 Tbsp. fish sauce
juice of 1 lime
2 Tbsp. nam prik pao
1 14oz can high-quality coconut milk (“Chaokoh” brand is best in my experience)
fresh hot chilis (Thai bird’s eye or whatever, who cares) (optional)
chopped fresh cilantro (optional)
cooked rice to serve with
- In a medium saucepan, reduce the chicken stock by almost half. Do this by brining it to a simmer and then allowing it to evaporate down for about 10 – 20 minutes (how long it takes depends on the shape of your saucepan). While this is reducing, add the galangal and lemongrass, both sliced thin (they won’t be eaten, so ignore how they look), and the lime leaves.
- Meanwhile, prepare the mushroom, carrot and chicken. Slice them however you’d like. You can use any mushroom you like, and while it’s traditional to use straw mushrooms, they’re only available canned in the U.S. and I find the texture and flavor to be appalling. I found fresh mushrooms at my local Thai market called “King Oyster” and they were great, really meaty.
- When the chicken broth has visibly reduced in volume (don’t stress about it being exactly half), turn the heat down to medium-low and using a slotted spoon or small sieve, remove the galangal, lemongrass and lime leaves. Discard them. To the broth add the can of coconut milk – take care to get all the good thick stuff out of the can and into your soup! – and the carrot, mushroom, chicken, sugar, lime juice, nam prik pao and fish sauce. Keep the temperature of the soup just barely and not quite at a simmer. We’re basically poaching the chicken at a low temperature. If it begins to bubble, nudge the heat down a little. Depending on how large your pieces are, it could take anywhere from 7 to 15 minutes for the chicken, mushrooms and carrots to cook. Just keep the heat at barely a simmer and check pieces regularly for doneness. Because of the low heat, it’s pretty forgiving if they cook a few minutes too long.
- When everything is cooked, taste one last time for seasoning. It should be a perfect balance of salty and sour with an ever-so-faint whisper of sweet. If it seems maybe too rich, add more lime juice. The level of spiciness is up to you: if you like it very spicy, add the optional fresh hot chilis at this stage.
- Serve with a garnish of fresh cilantro. I really, really like to plop a big scoop of fresh hot rice into my bowl of tom kha gai just before eating, but you (like the Viking) may not like soggy rice. You’re on your own.