Spring is almost here. The snow is nearly melted, the ground is starting to soften, and the first crocuses peeped out today, which means it’s about time to get out in our garden and start prepping the spring beds. I have packs of cilantro and dill seeds, two herbs that love cool spring temperatures, plus our spring greens ready to plant. Cilantro is at the top of my favorite herbs list, and I love that it pops up in the spring, its fragrant leaves ready for just about anything I want to cook. We seed several rows of it, staggering the plantings to help keep it going into the summer. Once the summer heat really kicks in, the cilantro will flower and go to seed, but we have a few months to enjoy fresh-picked cilantro before that happens.
I add handfuls of the fresh cilantro leaves to this Thai chicken coconut soup, aka tom kah gai, one of my favorite Thai dishes. The ingredients list may send you off on a treasure hunt, but once you have everything it’s very easy to make. The coconut base is flavored with lemongrass (which we grow year round in a pot), hot chiles, galangal (a root from the ginger family), and kaffir lime leaves. We have some great international grocery stores nearby, but even with those resources it can be a challenge to find fresh galangal and kaffir lime leaves, so in a pinch I buy them in jars, which keep in the refrigerator for a few months. And when I can’t find my favorite fresh straw mushrooms, canned is ok too.
I’ve tasted this soup done up many different ways both here and in Thailand. Most often it has mushrooms, but a few times it had bell peppers, which also went nicely with the coconut. I like the flavor and texture of straw mushrooms, but you can substitute others. And if you can’t find galangal or kaffir lime leaves, ginger and a few drops of lime juice work nicely.
Thai Chicken Coconut Soup (Tom Kah Gai)
- 4-quart heavy bottom pot with lid
- 2 sticks lemongrass (smashed and cut into 1-inch pieces)
- 1 inch galangal root (thinly sliced)
- 4 kaffir lime leaves
- 2 hot Thai chilies (sliced in half)
- 14 ounces canned unsweetened coconut milk
- 1 cup water
- 1 pound boneless skinless chicken breast, thinly sliced
- 8 ounces straw mushrooms
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- 1/4 teaspoon palm sugar (or light brown sugar)
- fresh cilantro leaves
- Combine the lemongrass, galangal, lime leaves, chilies, coconut milk, and water in the pot. Cook over medium heat until hot, but not boiling. Add the chicken pieces and continue to cook over medium heat, until the chicken is just cooked and still tender. Add the mushrooms and cook for 2 more minutes, until the mushrooms are hot.
- Stir in the lemon juice, fish sauce, and palm sugar. Cook for another 2 minutes, until the sugar dissolves. Divide among the bowls and garnish with fresh cilantro leaves to serve.