Presumptuous me

April 11, 2011

One day last week, I tweeted:

I'm gonna go out on a snow-blanketed limb, & claim that my Thom Kha is the best in #indy. I sadly wish this were not the case.
Katy Carter

And how truly sad that I believe it to be true — only because no one has offered up another bowl of thom kha to challenge my assertion.

But let’s back up a bit, shall we? I am nothing if not confident in my ability to cook many things — often over-confident to the point of leaving my face with the occasional coating of (proverbial) egg — so what’s the big deal, whether or not I’m full of my ability to cook an Asian soup?

Thom kha might mean nothing to you; it might ring a faint bell of familiarity; or, if you are at all like me and Tim, it is a yardstick by which you measure the value of every Thai restaurant at which you’ve ever eaten. That’s right: Tim and I, as a couple, have never once eaten at a Thai restaurant without ordering at least a cup of thom kha (coconut-chicken soup). For some reason, it’s a true litmus test. We start with the soup — and usually, if the soup is to our liking, the rest of the meal will be, as well.

And, granted — neither of us have ever been to Thailand. So we’re not even sure if our way of enjoying it is in any sense authentic. We like it a little spicy, but not sweat-inducing; not too sweet; chicken pieces that are not rubbery or dry; the optional addition of straw mushrooms; flavored with ginger, but not full of chewy strips of the stuff that will leave you feeling like you’re gnawing on ginger-flavored tree bark. A rich broth, not too watery or thick, but a Goldilocks just right.

The fact that we don’t eat out much doesn’t help my assertion that no Thai restaurants in this city live up to our hopes — but we’ve tried at least three, and really, that’s the magic number for burning up a desire to keep trying. Even after a New York Times article praised the ethnic restaurant scene in our city, we continue to get recommendations for the places we’ve tried before, and felt were lacking (the article didn’t mention Thai).

While I love this dairy-free soup, for its quickness, simplicity, and surprising complexity (note the ingredients you shouldn’t do without), I’ll admit that I wish we could pick up a cup of it at a great little Thai place in a local strip mall. With a side of red curry to match. Because this soup, in my perfect world, would definitely fit into the category of Things I Can Make At Home But A Restaurant On The Westside Does Much Better.

And if you live in Indy, and know just the place, pass on your rec. Our chopsticks are waiting.


Thom Kha (Thai chicken-coconut soup)
adapted closely from a recipe in The Joy of Cooking

makes about 6 cups

The things that make this soup go from acceptable to thinking-you-make-the-best-soup-in-town: use homemade chicken stock, use the fish sauce (it smells mildly offensive straight from the jar, but makes the soup authentic), and if you’re lucky enough to run across some lemongrass, add that step.

  • 2 14-oz cans coconut milk (not low-fat)
  • 3 1/2 cups chicken stock (or low-sodium chicken broth)
  • 2-3 jalapeno peppers, seeded and chopped (more or less, to taste)
  • 3 Tbsp thai fish sauce (found in the Asian food section of grocery stores — can sub soy sauce in an emergency, but the soup will lose complexity)
  • 2 tsp peeled minced fresh ginger
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs, thinly sliced
  • 1 can straw mushrooms, drained (optional)
  • 2 Tbsp fresh lime juice, or more to taste
  • chopped fresh cilantro or Italian parsley, for garnish (optional)
  • cooked rice, for serving (optional)
  • lemongrass leaves, rinsed and chopped into 2″ lengths (optional)

If you have lemongrass, simmer the coconut milk with the chopped stalks for about 15 minutes before proceeding (be sure to remove the lemongrass and discard before adding the chicken).

Bring the coconut milk and chicken stock to a simmer in a soup pot. Add the jalapenos, fish sauce, ginger, and salt, and simmer for about 10 minutes.

Add the chicken thighs, optional mushrooms, and lime juice. Simmer for 5-10 minutes, until chicken is cooked through. Check for seasoning and/or more lime juice.

Serve with a scoop of cooked rice, garnished with cilantro or parsley. Leftovers will keep in an airtight container in your refrigerator for 2-3 days.

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