Merry Christmas, legions of devoted fans! I have a present for you: this soup. It’s an appropriate Christmas gift for many reasons—it’s warm, soothing, and complex, and it can be hastily assembled shortly before Christmas. This soup has long been one of my favorite comfort foods (second only to mac and cheese, my indisputable king of comfort foods) and I’m ashamed that it’s taken me til now to realize how simple it is to make for myself.
But I’m also here to testify about the Christmas Eve miracle this soup performed. You see, I actually made the soup on Christmas Eve Eve, and while it was tasty, it was nothing to write home about. Nothing, indeed, that I would write on this blog about. I was disappointed—I had hoped to write a triumphant blog post about tom kha gai, just in time for Christmas. I thought maybe it needed more coconut milk, or lemongrass, and I swore that next time I’d try to find real galangal, in the hope that maybe that would boost the flavor.
And then, one day later, I had the soup for dinner.
I don’t know what shenanigans occurred in my fridge in the 24 hours from Christmas Eve Eve to Christmas Eve, but there was some kind of magic. Instead of seeming too thin, now the balance of coconut milk and broth was perfect. The mushrooms and chicken, rather than seeming a tad bland, had taken on the deep flavors of the broth. Even the cilantro and scallions seemed to improve in the reheating, and that just makes no sense at all.
Finding the right ingredients for this soup can be a bit tricky. The grocery store I went to had neither fresh lemongrass nor galangal, although I was surprised to find that it stocked both jars of little lemongrass curls and galangal paste, as well as what looked like kaffir lime leaf pesto. I was feeling cheap, so I only bought the jar of lemongrass. The curls were pretty and fragrant, but I think they weren’t as flavorful as lemongrass stalks would have been.
Next time I’ll try to take the time to find lemongrass stalks (Whole Foods often carries them) and galangal—various internet sources say that ginger really isn’t an adequate substitute. I guess once I’ve gone to a store that stocks whole galangal I can probably find kaffir lime leaves, too, but the internets seem more willing to accept lime zest and juice as a replacement.
14-oz can coconut milk
4 cups chicken stock
1 pound chicken, cut into bite-sized pieces
10 oz cremini mushrooms, thinly sliced
4 stalks lemongrass (bottom part of stalk, until about 6 inches from root), cut in 2-inch pieces and lightly smashed
1 handful kaffir lime leaves
1 galangal root (peeled and sliced into 0.5-cm rounds)
2 heaping tablespoons red curry paste (optional but highly recommended)
fish sauce to taste
handful torn cilantro leaves
4 scallions, white and light green parts only, chopped
Cut the chicken into bite-sized pieces. Toss with about four tablespoons of fish sauce and let marinate while preparing the broth.
Mix the chicken stock with the lemongrass, galangal, curry paste, and lime leaves (or zest of the limes). Simmer, covered, for about half an hour. Strain.
Add coconut milk, chicken, and mushrooms to strained broth. Let simmer gently until chicken is done.
Season to taste with juice of the limes, additional fish sauce (highly recommended), and additional curry paste as needed. Stir in scallions and cilantro.