CHICKEN IN COCONUT MILK WITH GALANGAL
Thai Name: Tom Khaa Gai or Tom Khaa Kai (literally means “Boiled Galangal Chicken”)
This traditional Thai chicken and coconut milk soup uses aromatic vegetables like galangal, lemongrass and lime leaves to make a perfumed and delicious soup. In this recipe, the cook must use his or her eyes and nose to help determine when it is time to move to the next step of cooking.
The galangal gives a spicy taste to the soup – it is a cousin of ginger but has a sharper taste. Here is a photo of galangal so you know what to look for at the market.
A Common Question about Galangal and Ginger
Galangal and ginger are from the same family – the galangal pictured above is sometimes called “lesser ginger” by botanists. But these roots do not have the same flavor and ginger makes a weak substitute for galangal in this particular dish. Galangal has a sharper flavor that is meant to complement the soft flavor of the chicken breast and the tangy lemongrass and lime leaves. Galangal is available in dried forms and you would have to adjust the recipe to get the true impact of the galangal flavor if using the dried or powered form.
Here is photo of galangal and ginger side by side for reference. You can see the galangal on the left side is denser than ginger.
Metric System Users: Some Thai recipes use small quantities of ingredients that are difficult to measure if the cook doesn’t have an accurate measuring scale in the kitchen. So, we use measuring spoons to approximate the quantity of ingredients in the recipe. Remember that 1 Imperial teaspoon is the same as the amount in a 5 ml measuring spoon and 1 Imperial tablespoon is the same amount in a 15 ml measuring spoon. Thai cooking should be a balance between the spicy, salty, sweet and sour flavors in the ingredients. This type of volume (versus weight in grams or ounces) measuring gives the cook in a home kitchen enough accuracy in measuring the ingredients. Most cooks will change these traditional recipes to suit their own taste as they experiment and create Thai food at home.
- 3 cups coconut milk / 750 ml.
- ½ cup water / 125 ml (or substitute a hearty chicken stock).
- 1 cup chicken breast / 300 grams, skin removed and cut into bite sized pieces.
- 15 coins of galangal from a 1.5 inch / 4 cm piece, skin trimmed off (each coin about 1/8 inch / 0.5 cm in width).
- 7 stalks lemongrass, bottom stem removed and top half trimmed so they are approximately four inches long / 10 cm, the tough outer layer removed, then the soft inner stalk bashed with a cleaver or knife so the flavor in the lemongrass leaks out.
- 8 wild lime leaves, center stem removed and torn into thirds (you can substitute 1 teaspoon / enough to fill a 5 ml measuring spoon of grated lime zest).
- 5 – 10 red small chillies, stem removed and bruised with a cleaver or knife to release the spicy flavor inside. I use red chillies to provide a color contrast to to the white soup basis and the green of the wild lime leaves. Also, if your fellow diners do not like to bite into chillies, the red chillies are easy to identify and avoid.
- 1 large shallot, skin removed and sliced along the equator into thin slices (about 2 tablespoons / enough to fill a 30 ml measuring spoon).
- ½ cup / 40 grams thinly sliced straw mushrooms or button mushrooms (optional).
- 3 tablespoons / 45 ml fish sauce.
- 2 tablespoons / 30 ml lime juice.
- 1 tablespoon coriander/cilantro leaves / enough to fill a 15 ml measuring spoon.
Note: The collection of galangal, lemongrass, wild lime leaves, chillies, mushroom and shallots we call “aromatics” since they give the soup fragrance, flavor and color.
Here is a photo of the aromatics to give you an idea of the balance of colors and the sizes. The lime leaves were torn off the tough inner stem so their flavor seeps out. The lemongrass has had the tough outer layers peeled off as they are too tough to chew and the lemongrass has been slit open so the flavor inside is released. The chillie stems were removed and the top of the chillie trimmed slightly to release the spicy flavor. The shallot was peeled and cut along the equator to make it look attractive. The galangal was skinned and cut into slices to help release its flavor.
COOKING METHOD STEP BY STEP
Turn on the burner to medium high, and place the coconut milk and water or chicken stock into a medium size saucepan and bring to the boil. Smell the hot coconut milk and look at the pale white color. We are later going to use our eyes and sense of smell to guide us as to when the coconut milk has been flavored by the aromatics so we can add the chicken.
- After the coconut milk and water or chicken stock have reached a boil, reduce the heat to medium low. Add the wild lime leaves, lemongrass, chillies, shallot, galangal slices and mushrooms, if using. Look at the contents of the pan and smell it – you will need this as a reference point to determine if the coconut milk has later become flavored with your ingredients.
- Continue to cook over medium low heat for five minutes to extract the flavor from these aromatics. Now smell the coconut milk with the aromatics to sense if it has changed. Look at the coconut milk and water in the pan to see if it has changed color – if the coconut milk has gotten slightly darker, it means the flavor and color of the aromatics has been released. Since the color change and change in smell are important, continue softly boiling until you can sense the change from sweet coconut milk to an infused soup base that has become flavored by the ingredients inside the cooking pot – this may take longer than five minutes.
- Add the chicken chunks by spreading them evenly through the pan but do not stir (this helps seal the outside of the chicken and keep the chicken meat moist inside). After the soup returns to the boil, you can stir lightly to make sure the chicken cooks evenly.
- The chicken should cook through in about five minutes – you can test for doneness by taking one of the larger chunks out and cutting into it to see if it has been cooked through (no pink color on the inside).
- Remove from the heat. Add the lime juice and fish sauce and stir mildly. We add the fish sauce and lime juice at the end of the cooking process so their flavors don’t evaporate out. You can adjust the quantity of fish sauce and lime juice to suit your own preference.
- Sprinkle coriander/cilantro leaf on top of the dish just before serving and serve warm. Serve with steamed jasmine rice on the side or add rice to the bowl as I do!
Serves two persons as part of a multi-dish Thai meal.
You can leave in the woody lemongrass stalks and galangal pieces in the soup if your guests are not too picky, or you can remove them.
If you purchase fresh wild lime leaves, you can reserve those you don’t use in the freezer to preserve their unique aroma and flavor. When ready to cook again, put the frozen leaves in your dish – no need to unfreeze them. The cooking process will warm the leaves and help release the cherished aroma and flavor.