Sunday, February 10, 2019

Tom Kha Gai (Thai Chicken Coconut Soup)

Many of us received a not so warm welcome into 2019 as we faced record low temperatures throughout the country. Even my home in "Hotlanta" (please don't ever call it that) hit freezing.

Thankfully, the temps are back in the double digits (for now), but there will be many more cold winters in my future as I prepare to relocate to Rochester, NY for cardiology fellowship!

I obviously used this as an excuse to splurge on a new winter wardrobe and to create new cold weather recipes, such as Tom Kha Gai (Thai chicken and coconut soup). This ridiculously rich and fragrant soup is one of my all time favorites. If chicken noodle is the "Jewish Penicillin" of soups, then Tom Kha Gai is the "Thai Prozac." After getting the flu shot, this luxurious broth is all you need to get through the dreariest of winters. It is truly one of the most delectable wintery soups you can make.

The soup is surprisingly simple to make but is packed with brilliant flavors. It's a perfect combination of creaminess from the coconut milk, earthiness from the galangal root (more on this to come), tang from the lemongrass and lime, and umami-ness from the fish sauce and mushrooms. It also packs a bit of heat from the Thai chilis, just enough to bring a little zing to the palate.

Galangal root, called "Kha" in Thai (namesake of this soup) resembles ginger in appearance but is not interchangeable in flavor. Galangal has an earthy and citrusy flavor that is much stronger than ginger. Full disclosure, it was a little challenging to find initially, but was readily available at a nearby(ish) Asian market.

One final thought before getting to the recipe. A lot of the food I share fits within the parameters of a "heart healthy" Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes the consumption of unsaturated fatty acids from extra virgin olive oil and nuts. This recipe, on the other hand, uses coconut milk, high in saturated or "bad" fats thought to raise the risk of developing heart disease. So, why are these coconut products frequently marketed as "health foods?" The thought is that saturated fats from coconut oils are made of medium chain triglycerides, which may be metabolized differently than other "bad" fats.

Per my recent review of PubMed, the literature remains limited and inconclusive. While epidemiological data has not found a clear association between coconut oil consumption and heart disease, several small randomized trials showed that coconut oil does raise LDL ("bad") cholesterol. However, many of these studies failed to evaluate the effects on HDL ("good") cholesterol and there are no long term outcome studies. At this point, I don't think there's sufficient evidence to toot coconut oils as "healthy," but it warrants ongoing investigation. For now, I think it’s reasonable for healthy individuals to consume these products in moderation.

Tips/Tricks to the Perfect Tom Kha Gai

  • As always, the simpler the recipe, the more important it is to seek out the highest quality ingredients. These are the brands I recommend:
    • Arroy-D 100% coconut milk
      • Comes in a carton rather than a can and has no preservatives or additives
      • Wonderful taste and texture that feels closest to fresh coconut milk
      • At a minimum, try finding brands made in Thailand that only have coconut and water listed as ingredients
    • Red Boat Fish Sauce
      • It's salty with a nice fish flavor (that isn't fishy) and has a slightly sweet finish
    • Favorite store bought stock? "Thank you, next..."
  • Avoid boiling your coconut milk to prevent curdling! She's delicate!
  • There's enough natural sweetness from the coconut milk to balance the tanginess of the lime. If you want it sweeter, add a little palm sugar
  • Use the bottom of a heavy pot or a mortar and pestle to smash the hell out of your aromatics!
    • Smash the Thai chilis until their insides are oozing out a little
    • Bruising lemongrass will result in a more vibrant soup
  • Hit up your Asian market and stock up on the ingredients not readily available elsewhere (galangal, kaffir lime, good coconut milk, lemongrass, Thai chilis). Please let me know if you have trouble tracking them down. I'd be happy to help!

Serves 2-3 as main course

Tom Kha Gai Ingredients

  • 2 cups homemade chicken stock
  • 1 large stalk lemongrass
    • Ends trimmed, tough outer layer removed
    • Smashed, cut crosswise into 2-inch pieces
  • 2-inch piece of fresh galangal, sliced thinly into rounds
  • 5 large kaffir lime leaves, crumbled and torn to pieces (about 0.35 ounces)
  • 16.9 ounces full-fat coconut milk (500 mL or 2 generous cups)
  • 3 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite sized pieces
  • 8 ounces fresh oyster mushrooms or other mild varieties, such as enoki or straw
  • 4 fresh Thai chilis, smashed
  • 4 tablespoons fresh lime juice, plus extra lime wedges for serving
  • Cilantro for garnish
  • Cherry tomatoes, halved for garnish (optional)

Preparing Lemongrass:

Tom Kha Gai Recipe

Combine chicken stock, lemongrass, galangal and lime leaves in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes. Strain broth through sieve into a new saucepan and discard the solids.

Add the coconut milk and half the fish sauce and bring to a gentle boil over medium heat. Add the chicken and return to a gentle boil, then add the mushrooms and chilis. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until chicken is cooked and mushrooms are tender (about 10-15 minutes).

Remove from heat. Tasting the soup, gradually add lime juice and the remaining fish sauce until a desired balance of tangy and salty flavors are reached. Cover the pot and allow the flavors to meld together off the heat for a few minutes.

Ladle the soup into a tureen or individual bowls and serve with lime wedges, cilantro, and other garnishes as desired.