Anger Burger

Comfort Where You Can Find It

Posted by Sunday on Jul 18, 2011 at 8:22 am

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 Cialis 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.
July 18th, 2011 | Food Rant, Make It So

17 Responses to Comfort Where You Can Find It

  1. Kristina says:

    Funnily enough the only versions I’ve had of Tom Kha Gai *all* had that orangey oil on top, so I’ve never had it otherwise — but always glad to know what that oil is. Post away other uses — there is a Thai market down the street and I’m a glutton for condiments. The sandwich idea is wonderful.

    Also, I have far more trouble finding fresh Kaffir Lime leaves than I do jarred condiments. I discovered enterprising people with Kaffir Lime Trees sell the leaves on ebay. I purchased a baggie for a buck and they were shipped immediately. Because they were from California going to California, I wasn’t worried about transit time. They arrived just fine a day later, perfectly clean and fresh, and they are in my freezer. Don’t overlook ebay, people, if you need some leaves off off someone’s lime tree.

    Also, I found the sparkling red wine, and have already consumed said sparkling red wine, and I thank you. It’s delicious!!!! Exactly what I wanted wine to be and I make no apologies to any wine snobs out there who snigger that I’m basically drinking alcoholic grape soda.

    Finally, because I was sympathetic to your losing Atmo, I went to tour your Flickr set and I discovered that I know you from a prior life! My Mr. Bento Life. I used to post in the Mr. Bento forums constantly, years ago, when I put a lot more effort into my lunches, and as soon as I saw your Flickr avatar I recognized you. Clicked through and yep, there I was, commenting back and forth on your Bento lunches. Didn’t ever connect the dots that I stalked your food back then, and now.

    • Sunday says:

      THIS IS TOO BIZARRE. The internet can’t be that small, can it? That we chatted each other up on Flickr years ago?

      Good tip on the ebay lime leaf – I buy my vanilla beans from ebay, there are several suppliers that sell like 1/2 POUND of fresh vanilla beans for like, $20 after shipping – if you go in on it with a friend you’ll have enough beans to last all year.

  2. Erin says:

    I have never found a Tom Kha Gai that has even come close to matching how much I like Thai Pavillion’s, especially the pre-ownership change version.

    The truth is, I hardly ever cook but still read Anger Burger frequently. This post has changed everything.

    I will make this….and the grilled cheese.

    • Sunday says:

      Yeah, I’m still somewhat convinced that Thai Pavillion has some kind of secret secret ingredient, like illegal Thai eye of newt or something. But this is the closest I’ve ever gotten it. I don’t know that I’d bother cooking it if you can still get Thai Pavillion, but I would make the cheese sandwich.

  3. MoMoDeluxe says:

    This is my favorite soup in the whole world, my desert-island food, and in second place is it’s non-coconutty cousin, which I think is called Tom Yum Gai? The thing I think is weird is how different these two soups are from restaurant to restaurant…almost always there is the orangy oil on top and now I know what it is!
    I will be making this as soon as I can find the ingredients!
    Also, so sorry to hear about the adorable food-channel-watching pup :-((( My Etsy shop is named after my beloved kitty whose nickname was also MoMo. I had her for 18 years and I still miss her every day.

    • Sunday says:

      Yeah, the non-coconut one is tom yum, also very good. Probably better for summer weather, actually, but that’s just my Caucasian talking.

      Thanks regarding Atmo – I’d noticed your name here before and chuckled at it, I think I even called our Atmo “Momo Deluxe” once. It’s amazing how people either get it or they don’t – we’ll miss Atmo until the day we die, there’s just no explaining it.

  4. Stephanie says:

    Nam prik pao!!! I had that same “ah ha” moment about a year ago now, after trying a million recipes for Tom Kha Gai without it and wondering what was missing…I found an authentic recipe that included this paste and it was finally the soup of my dreams (also, finally like my fave in Portland @ Thai Noon)! I make my own nam prik pao since I couldn’t find it, using Pim’s recipe http://chezpim.com/uncategorized/nam-prik-pao and I agree best grilled cheese additive ever.

    • Sunday says:

      I wanted to make the homemade nam prik pao too, but it seemed like a lot of work for something I wasn’t sure I was going to like, but now that I know I can’t live without it, I’ll probably be making it myself. Or maybe not, it’s just so convenient to buy a jar…

  5. Sunday says:

    It’s interesting how many of you mentioned only having had the version with the orange oil on top (and presumably, the nam prik pao) in it when Leela over at She Simmers says it’s not traditional. I mean, I beleive that Leela is telling the truth, I’m wondering if this is just a powerful U.S. variant, that Americans all like their tom kha gai with nam prik pao in it.

  6. Raine says:

    “Where ginger is sharp and spicy, galangal is floral, resinous and arcane.” Sunday, girl, sometimes you be a genius in describing tastes and flavors and that’s yet anoher thing that I love about Anger Burger!:-)
    Anyway, over here in the Philippines, we have a close relative to Nam Prik Pao and we call it “Bagoong” (pronounced bago-ong, short vowels all around)which we scoop over hot rice, dip into with green mango (adding sour as yet another flavor in its circus of flavors) and dress into salads (of tomatoes, onions, some greens, some pepper and vinegar). Its a national favorite although the smell is a bit more odious than the Nam Prik Pao. It’s sort of the asian Vegemite. I don’t knnow if its found in the Asian markets over there.

  7. Su-Lin says:

    Love nam prik pao in a stirfry! I love the stuff in a jar…it’s already pretty damn good and I guess I just can’t be bothered to make some homemade.

  8. Pingback: Anger Burger » Blog Archive » “Thai” Fried Rice (People of Thailand Forgive Me)

  9. mikeinsiam says:

    having been born in thailand and having spent 35 of my 60 years there, I tend to get jaded about food. Anyway, IMHO I agree with your galengal assessment…ginger can NEVER substitute. As for your Thom Kha, I personally would stick with oyster mushrooms as there are no chantrelles in Thailand that I’ve ever seen and the traditional mushroom is ‘Het Fahng’ or Hay Mushrooms. They are available canned and seem acceptable (just for the record, and again just my opinion). Carrots are available in Thailand but would never be used in this context…sometimes in in a Dtahm salad similar to Sohm dtahm perhaps. As for the dark meat only, we need to square off with spatulas at 20 paces.

    Lastly, Nam Prik Pao is not too hard to make yourself & is vastly superior to the jarred stuff. It does take some time to do ingredient prep and requires some basic kitchen skills as you need to fry thin-sliced garlic until just crispy, same for shallots without any bitter overcooked bits. If you’re interested, I can give my particular recipe adapted from the recipe our #1 used when I was literally a kid (long, long ago)

    Love your site graphics

    • Sunday says:

      I love hearing this stuff! I seriously want this recipe of yours, don’t hold out on me.

      And you’re right about the spatula duel. I’m sticking by the dark meat.

  10. Sarah says:

    MMMMM…I love Nam prik pao on grilled cheese… may I suggest you try it with fresh basil?(thai is better, but regular basil works too) amazing is all i can say.

  11. David says:

    Stopping by my Asian market on the way home tonight… can’t wait to try this! And I will definitely be yelling NAM PRIK PAO on my subway ride home.

  12. gray says:

    Awesome. Absolutely effing awesome…

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