What you see here is Coconut Chicken Soup. No really. I didn’t just pour some 2-percent milk into the bowl and drop in a sprig of cilantro. It is what I said. But it’s way more. Eat a few spoonfuls and Buddha may wink and sprinkle warm karma on your head.
Coconut milk, lime juice, fish sauce and galangal root add to much more than the sum of the parts. All the essential components of Thai cuisine are here – the coconut milk contributes a tongue-coating note of sweetness and fat, the lime juice is the sour element, the fish sauce is the pungent aspect and galangal, well, I’ll need to start a new sentence.
To me, galangal combines pepper, lemongrass and a breath of citrusy ginger. Call it the X factor.
We fell in love with this soup in a class at the last of five Epicurean Classics to take place in Traverse City back in 2008.
Galangal look a lot like gingerroot as it should as they are rhizome relatives. Like ginger, galangal has a segmented skin but it’s shinier, I.e., prettier. Underneath, the pulp is just as hard but not as fibrous.
For this recipe, combine the minced galangal, jalapeno pepper and ginger in a mortar and do your best to smush it into a paste with a little water or lime juice.
If you live in foodietown, you may find galangal in the local food mart. I get it at Whole Foods in Ann Arbor. Thai restaurants most likely used powdered galangal. Penzey’s Spices sells it in dehydrated form.
If it’s too much to track it down, just go with gingerroot, but Buddha will only give you an enigmatic nod.
This recipe was adapted from one in “Simply Thai Cooking” by Wandee Young and Byron Ayanoglu. It includes a bit of sugar to balance against the sour/bitter/pungent aspects. Vegetarians can skip the chicken and enjoy a tropical broth of enlightening complexity.
A word about fish sauce: It is NOT an optional ingredient but one of the planet’s greatest flavor boosters. Any Asian store sells it. I haven’t found it in anything smaller than a 1-liter bottle, but don’t fuss; it doesn’t go bad.
CHICKEN COCONUT SOUP
1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-in. stripes
1 each 1-in. piece of galangal and gingerroot, peeled and minced
1 small jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced
1-2 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups unsweetened coconut milk
1 cup water
1/3 cup lime juice, preferably fresh squeezed
1 tablespoon fish sauce
Large pinch sugar
Crush together the galangal, gingerroot, garlic and pepper with a pinch of salt and a little lime juice.
Combine the coconut milk and water in a saucepan, bring to a simmer and add the chicken and the galangal mixture. Simmer until the chicken is cooked through, add the lime juice, fish sauce and sugar. Heat on low about 10 minutes and serve.