I am eight years old. I am on a food recon trip with my dad in the middle of a fall day in Los Angeles. He is there for work, and I am tagging along for a few days of fun with my old man. We arrive at the place he has been searching for, a now-defunct restaurant called Thai Kitchen that used to be on Vermont between Eighth and Ninth. I have never seen, smelled, or tasted Thai cooking. Walking in the door, I feel overwhelmed by the bright perfume of mint, lemongrass, and chile, the now unmistakable bounce in the air when tamarind hits a wok. First thing I eat: chicken soup. There is a great New York City Jewish joke in there somewhere, but all I have energy for right now is recalling my first encounter with one of my favorite foods, gai tom ka.
The stunning complexity of Thai cuisine, studded at brief intervals with simple, elegant dishes, makes it one of the world’s most popular cuisines. If there is a more popular Thai dish than this one, I don’t know what it could be. And everyone thinks it must be very tough to make, but it couldn’t be easier. There is no better recipe to define my obsession with the romance of food, internationalism, travel or, for that matter, good, solid cookery. To this day, I make this dish almost every time I have guests in my house.
Thai Hot-and-Sour Coconut Chicken Soup
- 3 cups chicken stock
- 2 1/2 tablespoons light brown sugar
- 1/3 cup packed cilantro leaves, for garnish
- 1 tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger
- 2 fresh or dried Makrut lime leaves or 1 teaspoon finely grated lime zest
- 1 stalk lemongrass, tender inner white part only, minced (about 2 tablespoons)
- Two 14-ounce cans coconut milk
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon tamarind concentrate
- 1/2 pound shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and caps thinly sliced
- 1 pound skinless, boneless chicken thighs, sliced crosswise into 2-by-1/4-inch pieces
- 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons Thai red chile paste
- 1/4 cup fresh lime juice
- 2 red or green Thai chiles, very thinly sliced on the bias
- 1/4 cup Asian fish sauce
In a medium bowl, toss the chicken with the fish sauce.
In a large pot, combine the stock with the sugar, chile paste, tamarind, ginger, lemongrass and lime leaves and bring to a boil over moderately high heat. Stir in the coconut milk and bring to a simmer. Add the chicken and fish sauce along with the mushrooms and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is cooked through and the mushrooms are tender, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and discard the lime leaves. Stir in the lime juice and chiles. Ladle the soup into bowls, sprinkle with the cilantro and serve.
Make ahead: The soup can be refrigerated overnight.
Originally published in Andrew Zimmern’s Kitchen Adventures on foodandwine.com.
Photo by Stephanie Meyer.