Monday, November 5, 2012

Thai Herb Lecture-Cooking Demo at It’s About Thyme, 11.4.2012, PT. 1

Yesterday afternoon Sap Apisaksiri of Sap’s Fine Thai Cuisine (on Westgate, and Austin's best Thai restaurant) and I taught a culinary class together, at Chris and Diane Winslow’s It’s About Thyme Nursery, the best source in the region for culinary herbs. I lectured on Thai herbs and culinary culture while Sap joined in, and did a cooking demo of spicy coconut and chicken soup, tom kha, and a quick stir fry with fresh herb curry and fish cakes, pad ped pla grai. We talked about a myriad of different aspects of Thai cuisine, and most of the primary ingredients used in Thai cooking, and the good sized crowd got to sample a couple of excellent dishes. In this first entry I’ll cover the soup portion of the handout that they got at the lecture; tomorrow the second half, the stir fry.

The big four of Thai seasoning, upper left, clockwise: makroot (Thai lime leaf), lemongrass, galangal (rhizome and sliced), Thai chiles

Tom Kha Gai – Spicy Coconut and Galangal Soup with Chicken

Tom kha gai
is a Thai soup known by most Westerners. It is an example of a more complex soup, where the base is primarily coconut milk and coconut cream, reinforced with chicken stock for depth (many Thai soups are fairly basic, unlike the soupy curries). Usually made with chicken meat, it is seasoned with lime juice, palm sugar, lemongrass, makroot leaves, galangal (the kha of tom kha), chiles, fish sauce, and cilantro. You can always distinguish a good tom kha by the amount of coconut cream and galangal used in the soup; the more of each used, the more expensive it is to produce, and the better it tastes. There are some amazingly vapid versions of tom kha produced in the States, where little coconut milk and no coconut cream is used, and the use of galangal is an afterthought. The more complex the soup is, the more difficult it is to balance the seasonings so that they all contribute to the whole, yet do not overshadow each other. As with all Thai food, the major flavor components are present: hot, sour, salty, sweet. It should taste creamy, rich, and spicy, with a faint tart note from the lime, and some base saltiness from the fish sauce on the finish.

An ocean of 4" galangal plants ready for sale, at It's About Thyme

Alpina galangal (A. nigra)


Galangal is heavily used in Thai cuisine, especially in association with seafood, as it minimizes ‘fishiness’. It is most known to Westerners through its use in Tom kha chicken and coconut cream soup, and it should be an assertive flavor in that dish (tom = soup, kha = galangal). It is sold as a fresh rhizome, or sliced and frozen. When rhizomes are young they are white to creamy, with pink tips; young galangal is best used in soups and stews. The flavor is gingery and floral, with an herbal, peppery finish. As the rhizome matures, it gets a thicker skin, and the color deepens to a burnished gold or amber, and the flavor gets more piquant and peppery; older rhizome is best for curries.

Galangal (Alpina galangal) can be grown here as a tropical, with a minimum temperature of 34°F or so, technically it is rated as Zone 9-10, which is a minimum of 20 to 30°F. It wants morning sun and afternoon shade for best rhizome production, although it will grow in full shade. It should be planted in a spot with good north wind protection, in rich soil, and mulched heavily. The plant should be kept lightly moist and wants good drainage. It likes a balanced food every 2 months or so, and will take a full 6 to 9 months to produce harvestable rhizomes. Expect the clump to get 4 to 6 feet tall. The flavor is gingery and floral, with citrus undertones and a peppery finish.

A herd of 4" makroot plants (Thai lime leaf) for sale at IAT.

A steaming bowl of rich, spicy coconut cream soup: Tom Kha Gai

Tom Kha Gai – Spicy Coconut and Galangal Soup with Chicken                          serves 4 to 6

- 2 cups chicken stock
- 1 cup mushrooms, sliced ¼” (or canned straw mushroom equivalent)
- 8 Thai lime leaves, bruised to release flavor, torn into pieces
- 6 2-inch pieces of lemongrass, bruised to release flavor
- 2 to 3-inch cube (or equivalent in frozen slices) galangal, sliced thinly
- 4 tablespoons Thai fish sauce (Golden Boy or Tra Chang [“weighing scale”])
- 3 to 4 tablespoons lime juice, to taste
- 2 teaspoon palm sugar, to taste
- 6 oz chicken boneless breast or thigh, sliced thinly
- 2 each 13.5 oz cans Chaokoh coconut milk, shaken
- 10 to 14 small red Thai chiles, crushed (or equivalent in nahm phrik pao roasted chile paste:Sap's Homemade [available for sale at restaurant], or Mae Ploy brand [“Chilli in Oil”], or Butterfly Brand)
- Cilantro leaves, to garnish
- Cooked jasmine rice, to serve

Heat the stock, add the mushrooms, lime leaves, lemongrass, galangal, fish sauce, and lime juice. Stir thoroughly, bring to a boil, and add the coconut milk, and then the chile peppers. Bring back to the boil, lower the heat to a simmer and cook for about 5 minutes to allow the flavors to develop. Bring back just to the boil, stir in the chicken slices, and immediately turn off the heat. Portion into thick bowls, garnish each with cilantro leaves, and serve with jasmine rice on the side.

NOTE: This soup is not intended to be eaten over the rice, or for the rice to be mixed into the soup (except at the very end, to absorb every drop of the broth), but to eat the soup separately, with bites of rice interspersed. The soup can be made with seafood of any kind, especially shellfish, instead of the chicken (pork or beef can be substituted as well). It can also be made with tofu, preferably cubes of crispy fried tofu, which can be purchased pre-cooked at Asian markets. Another substitute for the chicken is sliced cooked artichoke hearts, which serve as a substitute for banana blossoms.

Mick Vann ©


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