I was sad. I spent years in the tropics nurturing a love for the region’s complex fusion of salty, sour, hot, and sweet. The grit of ground rice powder, and the tang of lime. How could I have failed? As if I had been challenged, I started Googling, downloading recipe after recipe for tom kha gai, laying them out side by side on my kitchen counter, studying them in search of my Rosetta Stone.
Why did none of these new recipes mention turmeric? Why did some call for ginger and others for galangal? Maybe my failure was due to the kaffir lime leaves I wasn’t able to find. But could a leaf really make that much difference?
Armed with a recipe I cobbled together from my research, I accepted that my local Ralphs and Gelson’s grocery stores weren’t up to this project, and started investigating alternative markets. In a copy of Los Angeles Marketplace, I happened upon a recommendation for the Bangkok Supermarket on Melrose Avenue. Just past Western, it is a smog-stained white building topped by a nondescript sign that blends into the L.A. haze. It has an unimpressive, miniscule, door-ding parking lot, but the moment I stepped inside, I knew I’d found the pungent keeper of the secrets to tom kha gai.
Along with banana leaves, clay cooking pots for less than ten dollars, and the fleshy sweetsop fruit I thought I’d never taste outside Asia, I found kaffir lime leaves. A whole bundle for $1.19. And on the floor beneath them: a cardboard box filled with lemongrass at 39¢ a pound. Aisle B yielded half a dozen brands of nam prik pao. Who knew there were so many options when it came to chili paste?
I gathered excess amounts of everything I needed and headed back home. During the next month, fortified by visits to the Bangkok Market, I experimented. I discovered the necessity of the individual ingredients, their complements and contrasts, and why ginger is not galangal. Its spiciness lacks nerve. Ginger nips, but galangal bites. Those who think the fire in tom kha gai comes solely from its chilies are mistaken. It is chili combined with the slices of galangal that bring out the soup’s distinctive heat.
The kaffir lime leaves also work with their accompanying ingredients, providing a sherbet blend of citrus and cream. Tom kha gai may seem to derive its creaminess from coconut milk, but it is in fact the union of this milk with the leaves that give it its buttery undertone. The third essential fusion is lime and lemongrass. Both lend the soup a refreshing quality. But while lime provides tang, lemongrass counters with a soothing balm. Its fragrance reminds me of the subtle relief that nightfall eases through Southeast Asian cities.
The soup’s citrus, spice, cream, and heat require a final ingredient for balance: salt. But tom kha gai does not call for even a dash. Instead, it wants fish sauce, and when it comes to this stinky component, less is more. If you ever wonder if just one tablespoon is stingy, keep this in mind: It isn’t, and it never will be. One reeking pot of soup I made, which included a quarter cup, can attest to this. The Bangkok Market offers many kinds of fish sauce, and I recommend the Three Crabs brand.
It took me a few months to produce a tom kha gai that satisfied me like the soup I’d often had in Thailand. This is a long time to master just one dish, but I believed that it was worth it. So I returned to the Bangkok Market with my second recipe, for Laotian laap, and I calculated that at the rate I was going, I’d be ready in a year or two to throw a Southeast Asian dinner party.Tom Kha Gai
- 8 kaffir lime leaves
- 3 cans unsweetened coconut milk (Chaokoh brand)
- 1 can chicken broth
- 6 fresh galangal slices, about 1 inch in diameter
- 4 lemongrass stalks, lower third only, cut into 2-inch lengths and crushed (see following note)
- 4 fresh small green chili peppers, halved
- 1 Tbsp. Thai roasted chili paste (nam prik pao)
- 1 whole boneless chicken breast, cut into small slices or cubes
- 1 can drained, canned whole straw mushrooms
- ½ cup drained, canned sliced bamboo shoots
- ¼ cup fresh lime juice
- ¼ cup fresh cilantro leaves
- 1 Tbsp. fish sauce (nam pla)
1) Place 4 of the kaffir leaves in a large saucepan. Add the coconut milk, chicken broth, galangal, lemongrass and chilies. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes.
2) Strain out and discard all pieces. Bring the strained liquid to a boil. Reduce heat to medium to that it boils gently.
3) Add remaining 4 kaffir leaves, roasted chili paste, chicken, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and fish sauce.
4) Boil gently until the chicken is cooked throughout, about three minutes.
5) Stir in lime juice and cilantro leaves.
Working with lemongrass:
Cut off the root tip, and then cut a two-inch piece (approximately one-third of the stalk) from this end. Peel off the outer layer. The inner piece is what you’ll work with. It can be sliced thin and tossed in marinades, or crushed with the flat of your knife to bring out the oil. You can also drop the crushed pieces with 2 sprigs of mint into a glass of iced tea, or alone into a cup of hot water to help you sleep.
4757 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, California
This essay was originally written for a food writing class and published on La Lunchbox.