Nothing beats chicken soup when you’re feeling poorly. Not that you have to be laid up in bed to enjoy such a thing, it’s also an ideal and economical way of dealing to leftover chicken.
But chicken soups come in many forms.
Start with diced chicken breasts, add a rhizome of galangal, a stalk or two of lemon grass, some kaffir lime leaves and you have gastronomical ecstasy.
Chicken and galangal soup is superb, a compulsive mix of the mellow and the fiery. Few cooking ingredient names roll off the tongue as well as galangal – it sounds like an exotic greeting or secret password, redolent with mystery. Then there’s the flavour…
I first came across galangal many years ago in a friend’s Thai restaurant in Hamilton. It looked like little bits of bark floating in my soup. I tasted them with caution and became addicted.
The flavour is, well, one could compare it to Vick’s Vaporub but that would give the wrong impression. It has a spicy aroma with a hint of camphor perhaps. There is nothing like it.
A member of the ginger family, it is a native of Java and Malaysia and is popular in Chinese medicine. Europeans knew about it since the Middle Ages – it is mentioned by Chaucer – but it never really made an impact. They were probably too busy wolding down their lamprey pies.
Galalngal is also valuable as a ‘defisher’ – neutralizing troublesome fishy flavours in a range of Asian dishes. This is simplicity to whisk together, the most time-consuming part is straining the paste, although the effort is well worth it. The truly tricky part comes when you have to share it.
TOM KHA GAI
1 galangal rhizome, sliced
Half an onion, chopped
4 – 5 cloves garlic, sliced
2 stalks lemon grass
2 dried chillies, deseeded and chopped
1 cup fresh coriander
Grind of fresh black pepper
1 400ml tin coconut cream
500g chicken pieces, sliced
4 tbsp lemon or lime juice
1 tbsp fish sauce
4 kaffir lime leaves
2 cups chicken stock
- Finely chop about 7cm of the bottom part of the lemon grass and place into a food processor. Add the remaining paste ingredients and blend. Add a drop or so of water if needed. The mix will be a bit fibrous. Scrape into a bowl.
- Into a saucepan put ¾ of the paste, with most of the coconut cream (leave about 2 tbsp).
- Bring to the boil, stirring, then reduce heat and gently simmer for 10 minutes.
- Strain through a sieve to remove as much of the solids as possible and return the liquid to the pan. Mix in the remaining coconut cream and the rest of the paste.
- Add the chicken pieces and stock and simmer about five minutes. Stir in the citrus juice, fish sauce, the remainder of the (unsliced) lemon grass stalks and leaves and kaffir lime leaves.
- Heat until the chicken is cooked – maybe another five minutes. Add salt to taste. Remove the stalks and leaves just before serving.
Note: Frozen galangal, limes and much, much more can be bought from Asian food shops and good supermarkets. If anyone wants lemongrass, I have a huge plant in Gordonton and am happy to share. Just email me here.