When I was a teen growing up in Los Angeles in the mid- to late-1970s, it was the dawn of LA punk. Often the only places still open in the wee hours of the morning, when the after hours clubs shut down, were Thai restaurants. I remember a couple of tiny places on or near Hollywood Boulevard. They were where I learned to truly appreciate duck in the form of Green Duck Curry and Duck Noodles, and also where I was introduced to one of my favorite dishes of all time, Tom Ka Gai soup.
There was something about the combined flavors of galangal, kaffir lime, and cilantro that was unbelievably comforting after a bruising night of dancing and partying. Spooning in chili peppers pickled in vinegar and dashing on the fish sauce always cured my headaches. Looking back, I’m astonished at the tolerance of the restaurant owners (they were family places) towards outrageously dressed kids with often terrible manners, though I think we’d gotten most of our aggression out earlier in the evening, because I don’t recall any violent scenes.
The intense emotions of those teenage years, and the feeling of sanctuary those restaurants provided when I was reluctant to return home—these permeate my scent and taste memories of homestyle Thai cooking. Some people go to Mac and Cheese for comfort (and I don’t blame them—that’s good stuff), but for me there’s nothing more soothing than the heady scent of coconut broth and Thai spices. Even if you’re using store-bought curry or tom ka gai pastes, do look for fresh galangal and fresh or frozen kaffir lime. Both freeze well and if you don’t often go to Thai markets, you can keep some on hand, ready when you need it. Better yet, if you live in the right kind of climate, grow a kaffir lime and just take the leaves off the tree.
Thai(ish) Coconut Chicken Soup
- 1 large soup pot
- 3 T peanut oil
- 2 inches galangal root (fresh or frozen, but not dried)
- 4 cloves fresh garlic minced
- 2-8 red or green Thai chiles
- 6 cups mixed fresh vegetables (any mixture of cabbage(s), carrots, Thai eggplant, mushrooms, peas), chopped or diced. The crunchier the better.
- 3 T Thai curry paste (red, green, or yellow). You can start with less of this and then add as you cook the soup, until it tastes right to you.
- 3 cups coconut milk (use 4 cups if you prefer the low-calorie coconut milk)
- 1 liter chicken broth (or water)
- 3 leaves kaffir lime (fresh or frozen, but not dried)
- 500 grams chicken thighs (skinned, boned, and diced)
- fresh cilantro
- fresh Thai basil
- Add the oil to a large stock pot with a heavy bottom and heat on medium until a drop of water in the pan sizzles lightly. Add the fresh galangal, chiles, and garlic (don't breathe the steam). When the air is fragrant with the garlic, add the rest of the vegetables and toss in the oil until coated. Cook for 5-10 minutes, stirring, until the vegetables start to wilt.
- Stir in the Thai curry paste, pour in the coconut milk and add broth or water until the ingredients are submerged in about an inch of liquid. Add the kaffir lime leaves and the raw diced chicken and bring to a simmer. Simmer, stirring occasionally for about 40-45 minutes. Taste as it cooks and add more curry paste if you think it's needed.
- Serve hot, garnished with cilantro and Thai basil