It’s hard to believe even 15 – 20 years ago most Americans had never even heard of Thai food outside of cities that had a large Asian population. Now, Pad Thai, Pad See Ew, Massaman Curry, Green Papaya Salad, and Green Chicken Curry seem to be everywhere.
As much as I like those dishes, and many others, one stands out for me: Thom Yum Gai – Chicken Coconut Soup. The words “thom yum” basically mean “hot and sour soup”. “Gai” is the chicken version of this soup. Other styles of thom yum include – “Pla”: a fish soup eaten with rice; “Kha Mu”: a slower cooked soup made with pork knuckles. There are several other variations of this soup.
This is not only a refreshing soup to eat any time of year, but it’s one on my go-to’s when Husband Steve and I aren’t feeling well. Something about the alchemy of Asian soups in general that just make us feel better.
I like to make my Thom Yum Gai heavily seasoned. So, my soup has a pronounced, but not overbearing flavor, of ginger, lime, and chiles. I wanted to keep the flavor in line with what I’ve eaten at some of my favorite Thai restaurants. Of course, if you want to go lighter, adjust the seasonings as you like.
Besides the taste, the next best thing about this soup is the quickness and ease in which it comes together. From start to finish, less than an hour.
I will say that my inspiration for this recipe comes from James Peterson. His award-nominated book, Splendid Soups, is arguably the best book on soups ever published. While this is my recipe, he was definitely an influence on the direction I took.
A few notes:
1. Kaffir lime leaves are an authentic ingredient in this recipe. However, even with the plethora of Asian markets now in Austin, I still have a very difficult time finding them. So, I now use lime peel. However, if you can find Kaffir leaves, by all means, use them. 4 – 6 leaves, cut into julienne (thin) strips will work well.
2. If you can’t find lemongrass, you can use the peel of 1 lemon. Alternately, if can find it, there is a lemongrass paste that is available in some supermarkets; however, once you open the tube, it must be used within a finite amount of time. If you decide to use the paste, check the measurements on the container to see how much you need. DO NOT use dried lemongrass; all of the oils that give it its flavor will have dissolved leaving you with basically grass clippings.
3. You can peel the ginger or not. I generally don’t. If you do prefer to leave the skin on, be sure to wash the ginger thoroughly.
4. Shiitake mushrooms are really best for this dish. However, if you don’t like or can’t find them, you can use straw mushrooms (you can usually find them canned. Be sure to drain them first). In a pinch, criminis will do.
5. Chicken is the most common way to make this soup. However, you can also make it with shrimp, mixed fish and/or shellfish, pork, or tofu. Just use the same amount as you would the chicken. Be sure to use the corresponding broth as well. I’ve seen some restaurants serve thom yum with beef, but I don’t know how authentic that is or if it’s just to satisfy American palates.
6. By the way, fish sauce is essential to making this dish. There’s really no omitting it.
7. If you are making this dish with tofu and want to make it vegan, here is a recipe for vegan fish sauce.
8. If you can’t find Thai (also known as bird) chiles, you can substitute 3 – 4 serrano chiles. If you don’t want that much heat, be sure to remove the seeds and membranes. You can also cut back on the number of chiles.
9. To help stretch the soup and/or help mitigate the heat, you can serve some Jasmin rice alongside the soup. Alternately, have some cooked rice noodles in the bottom of the serving bowl and pour the soup on top. Just have the noodles or rice on the side, not in the actual soup pot.
10. Even though leaving all of the seasonings in the soup is more authentic, if you want to, after the soup has cooked, you can strain the broth, pick the chicken and mushrooms out of the seasonings. and place them back into the broth before serving. This is especially helpful if all you really want to do is drink the broth from a mug.
(I know you’re asking the question – “Why not strain the broth before you add the mushrooms and chicken?” Because, the longer the seasonings cook in the broth, the more flavor you will have. Besides, it’s not really that much extra work.)
11. If you do decide to go full authentic, serve the soup with a pair of chopsticks and a small bowl on the side so your guests can place their pieces of lemongrass, ginger, etc., aside as they eat.
3 c. chicken broth
peel of 1 lime, cut into 1″ pieces
2 ea. 4-inch stalks lemongrass, either sliced or minced (depending on your preference and patience)
1/2 c. ginger, cleaned and cut into 1/8″ slices (estimating is fine)
4 Thai chiles, thinly sliced
1/3 c. Thai fish sauce
1/2 c. lime juice
4 oz. shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, and sliced 1/4″ thick
2 boneless skinless chicken breasts, trimmed and sliced thin (approx. 1 lb. to 1-1/4 lbs.)
1 can (15-1/2 oz.) coconut milk
1/4 c. cilantro, chopped
1. In a large saucepan, add the chicken broth, lime peel, lemongrass, ginger, chiles, fish sauce, and lime juice. Bring to a boil over high heat.
2. Add the shiitakes, lower the heat to medium, and cook for 5 minutes.
3. Add the chicken, coconut milk, and cilantro. Continue cooking until the chicken is just done; about 3 – 5 minutes.
4. When the chicken is done, remove the saucepan from the heat and taste for seasoning.