I fell in love with chicken coconut soup soon after I arrived in Thailand as a Peace Corps volunteer. Its flavors were unfamiliar yet inviting, as if all my early impressions of Thailand had been simmered up and ladled into a bowl.
Though I spent my time in Thailand eating Thai food rather than learning to cook it, when I returned home to North Carolina, I was able to make a delicious pot of tome kha gai (chicken coconut soup) on my very first try with ingredients I tracked down at a small Korean market. Nowadays, you can find Thai ingredients like coconut milk, fish sauce, fresh lemongrass, and jasmine rice at supermarkets; and Asian markets often carry fresh or frozen lime leaves and galangal. One good online source for fresh galangal, lemongrass, and wild (kaffir) lime is Temple of Thai.
The defining flavor of this soup is galangal, known in Thai as kha. For this recipe, you can use this fibrous, intensely flavored rhizome in several different forms: fresh, frozen (whole or sliced), or sliced and dried into humble-looking woody chips. All three forms deliver galangal’s intense, citrusy tang. Ground dried galangal, however, does not, so please don’t use it in this soup. If you can’t find galangal, use its cousin, fresh ginger. The flavor will be different, but still delicious. And if you can’t find lemongrass or lime leaves, my ben lai—“Don’t worry!” They add magic, but even without them, you’ll still have a delicious soup. That’s how I made it the first ten years after returning from Thailand, because fresh Thai herbs were difficult to find during that time.
Making the soup is a snap. There are no new techniques to master. It’s a simple matter of prepping the ingredients, boiling, stirring, and simmering. I usually serve the soup Thai style, leaving the lemongrass, galangal, and lime leaves floating in the broth. But if you’re having guests and don’t want to ask them to eat around those items, you can remove them before serving the soup. Just scoop the solid ingredients into a large wire strainer held over the soup pot, fish out the galangal and lemongrass, and then return the chicken and mushrooms to the broth.
Many of my friends think that all Thai dishes are hot, but that isn’t true. This soup, for example, isn’t spicy-hot, though it would be served along with an array of spicier dishes and jasmine rice. To oblige my chilehead friends, I put a dish of tiny hot Thai chiles, stemmed and lightly pressed with the side of a knife, on the table. When added whole to the finished soup, they add a welcome burst of color and a blast of heat, too.