'The true cook is the perfect blend, the only perfect blend, of artist and philosopher. He knows his worth: he holds in his palm the happiness of mankind, the welfare of generations yet unborn.'

Monday, 22 July 2013

Tom Kha Gai, or Chicken soup with coconut milk and galangal 南薑椰汁雞湯

As home cooks, we tend to stay in our comfort zones and stick with the cuisines that we grew up eating. As a Chinese who spent almost half of my life in the West, I cook mostly Chinese food and bake western-style desserts, with occassional forays into French cooking. After all, the food of a people is like a language with its own distinct vocabulary that takes years to master. In this day and age, it's easy to pull out recipes of any cuisine in the world on the internet and try to cook up something 'ethnic'. But it takes years of living with the locals for a person to really know the food of a country different from his own.

I've always loved the food of southeast Asia with its kaleidoscopic melange of fresh herbs and spices. My grandma from my mother's side actually was born in Indonesia and my family always had a penchant for the spicy, aromatic cuisines of that part of the world. In Hong Kong, however, Thai food a lot more popular than Indonesian food. Most of the local Thai restaurants are not terribly authentic - they tone down the spices, the herbs and sourness for Cantonese people who like mild flavours. I've long stayed away from cooking Thai food since I felt that I don't have the necessary culinary experience and knowledge to cook genuine Thai food - until now!

I came across this cookbook by a Thai hairstylist called  阿泰 who has been living in Taiwan since 10. Even though he left Thailand at an early age, the flavours of his country stuck with him and he learnt to cook Thai food from his mother, who has sadly passed away. In fact, cooking Thai food has become something of an emotional therapy for him. It's a gem of a cookbook, with an index of common Thai ingredients and how to use them. The recipes range from familiar fair such as curry and tom yum kung to interesting dishes like raw shrimp in spicy fish sauce and sago meatballs. The book is in Chinese, and I would recommend anyone who likes Thai food to grab a copy.

Massaman chicken curry - first attempt at making my own curry paste!
I've made three dishes from the book so far: massaman chicken curry (see picture above), steamed fish with lime, chilli and garlic sauce, and this chicken soup with coconut milk and galangal which I'm sharing with you today. It's incredibly easy to cook so long as you can lay your hand on the ingredients. If you have a southeastern asian grocery nearby, chances are they'll carry them: galangal, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass. One caveat: you really need to use fresh, rather than dried herbs! It summons up the fresh, herby, spicy mixtures of flavours that make Thai food so addictive.

Tom Kha Gai, or  Chicken soup with galangal and coconut milk 南薑椰汁雞湯

(Adapted from 'Thailand Homemade Cuisine' by 阿泰)
Make sure you use galangal (南薑), rather than root ginger, for this soup. It is much milder and has a delicate, refreshing flavour that lends a an unmistakable stamp to a lot of Thai dishes.

Chicken legs or breasts on the bone: 3 pieces, chopped into medium-sized pieces
Coconut milk: 1 can (400g)
Galangal: 6 slices
Lemongrass: Cut off the thick outer layer, and cut three 5-cm slices from the root. Crush lightly with a cleaver
Kaffir lime leaves: 3-5, tear off the stem in the middle
Shallots: 8, crushed
Cultivated mushrooms: 8-12 slices (optional)
Small red chillies, 5, crushed with a cleaver
Palm sugar (or brown sugar): 25g
Salt: 1/2 tsp
Fish sauce: 2 tbsp
Lime juice: 2 tbsp
Water 750ml

1. In a roomy pan, add half of the coconut milk, and cook on a medium-low heat until it starts to froth. Add the chicken, galangal and lemongrass to the pot, and cook until the chicken is cooked on the outside.
2. Add palm sugar, shallots and water to the pot, and bring the soup to a boil again.
3. Now season with salt, chillies and fish sauce, and simmer for 10 mins with the lid on.
4. Add the mushrooms and cook for a few more minutes.
5. Last, add the kaffir lime leaves, and turn the heat off when the soup reaches a boil again. Off the heat, add the lime juice and the rest of the coconut milk. Check for saltiness (fish sauce) and sourness (lime juice). Serve and indulge!


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