I just returned from a three week backpacking trip in Thailand. It is an incredibly beautiful country, from the mountains of the north to the limestone cliffs in the south.
We participated in a number of excursions, but one of our favorites was taking a Thai cooking lesson in the city of Chiang Mai. They picked us up from the hotel and had us choose six recipes we’d be preparing later that evening.
We were then taken to the local farmers market and taught about the unique fruits, vegetables, spices, grains and noodles that we’d be using.
Thai food is notoriously spicy, but remarkably flavorful. I settled on preparing Pad Thai, Spring Rolls, Coconut Soup, Panang Red Curry, Minced Pork Stir Fry and Black Sticky Rice. It was enough food to cover both lunch and dinner that day. By far, my favorite was the Thai coconut soup. Below I’ve included the recipe. You’ll probably have to find an international grocery store near you for some of the ingredients.
Thai Coconut Soup Recipe
1 can coconut milk
2-3 cups chicken stock (homemade is best, then the stuff in cartons; boullion cubes are a last resort.)
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon palm sugar (You can substitute brown sugar)
2 stalks fresh lemongrass, washed and choppped in chunks (dried lemongrass is far inferior – punch it up with extra lime juice and zest at the end if you’re forced to go this route)
3 red shallots, peeled and chunked (You could substitute 3 smashed cloves of garlic plus a bit of onion)
2 coriander roots, scraped (substitute a pinch of whole coriander seed plus a handful of fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves)
2 chili peppers, halved (pick your favorite type, and modify number to suit your spice taste)
1.5 inch chunk of galanga root, chunked (ginger is in the same family, but tastes totally different – galanga TOTALLY makes the flavor of this dish. If you can’t get this locally, travel to a nearby city and visit the asian markets or scour the internets, buy a pound, then freeze what you can’t use now. It’s a floral flavor that you’ll definitely recognize if you’ve had tom kha gai before.)
3 kaffir lime leaves, coarsely chopped (You can substitute lime zest if necessary. It just won’t be as fragrant and complex.)
1 teaspoon chili garlic sauce (optional, and kind of a cheat, but often good.)
1 pound boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut to 1″ pieces (you can use breasts, but the thighs are moister and tastier)
1 cup chopped mushrooms (your choice – mix it up)
1-3 Tablespoons fish sauce (This stuff is pungent – if you’re not familiar, add incrementally and taste before increasing. But don’t be turned off by the smell. Definitely use some, as it’s a key flavor that softens when you add it to the soup.)
1 can baby corn, drained and chopped to 1/2″ chunks (optional)
1 Tablespoon lime juice (more if compensating – see notes above)
1 handful fresh cilantro, chopped
1/2 cup grape tomatoes halved, or 2 plum tomatoes coarsely chopped (optional)
- Combine all broth ingredients (coconut milk, stock, salt, sugar, shallots/garlic, coriander, galanga, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, chili sauce), bring to a low boil, and simmer for at least 15 minutes.
- Pour through a sieve/strainer to remove chunks, and return the broth to your big pot. You can rescue a few items from the strainer, mince them, and return them to the pot if you like – I usually don’t bother.
- You can usually smoosh more tasty liquid out of the chunks if you try, so give them a stiff squeeze.
- Chop chicken, mushrooms, and baby corn and add to pot with broth. Add fish sauce, and lime zest if using. Simmer lightly until chicken is cooked.