I first fell in love with Thai food during the time I spent in New York City at the end of college. There was a little spot in Soho where my best friend and I would meet for papaya salad and pad thai. We’d grab a seat by the window and people watch, and I remember being totally enthralled by the bright flavors of this new-to-me cuisine: lemongrass, lime leaves, Thai basil, salty peanuts. There was nothing like it. When I moved to Austin soon after, I searched for these flavors in my new city – and I was so happy to find them the day I walked into Thai Fresh. It’s been one of my favorite spots in the city ever since, and they have one of the most devoted followings of any local restaurant (case in point: their chef/owner Jam Sanitchat’s new cookbook is 100% crowd-funded! But more on that in a bit.)
So, you can imagine my excitement to be cooking live with Jam on Instagram Live this Wednesday, March 3rd, at 6pm CST! We’ll be making the Coconut Soup (Tom Kha Kai) from the new cookbook.
Pickup the list of ingredients and cook right along with us (the full recipe is at the bottom of this post), or if you’re in Austin, you can purchase a kit with all of the Thai Fresh coconut soup ingredients ready to go. Tune in by going to my Instagram and clicking on the profile picture where we’ll be cooking live.
So, about this cookbook… it’s really special. The book is a collection of Jam’s 40 years of cooking and 16 years of teaching the art of Thai cuisine, from her popular farmers market stand, to establishing what’s become an iconic restaurant in Austin. I was so excited to get my hands on an advance copy, and I asked Jam if I could share this excerpt from the book about Balance — which perfectly illuminates one of the features that sets Thai cooking apart.
Read on for her words (warning – may induce extreme hunger), and be sure to scroll to the bottom of the post to grab the recipe for her famous Coconut Soup. Can’t wait to see you guys tomorrow!
Thai cooking isn’t especially difficult to learn, but there is a core principle to understand before you start: Something that is always present—must be present—for food to be considered authentic Thai is a balance of sweet, sour, salty, spicy and bitter flavors. This “five-flavor combo” balance is ancient to our culture and how we understand food. It’s the only way we approach cooking. This doesn’t mean that each individual dish has to include all five flavors (though sometimes that’s the case). It means that the entire meal itself represents a balance of all five flavors. Each flavor comes from different sources—for example, spicy can come from chili peppers, garlic, cloves or spices; sour from lime and lemon juices, fruits, vinegar and tamarind; sweet from sugars and fruits; salty from fish sauce, soy sauce or salt; and bitter from herbs, spices and even vegetables. A balanced representation of the five flavors in a meal satisfies all of your senses and makes you crave more.
I remember my grandmother and mom tasting their food as it was cooking. Whenever the taste was “off,” they knew just what to add to find the balance. Sweet fixes sour and vice versa, they told me. Salt always tones down heat, and sugar will do the same. If you can break a dish down to its major flavor components, it will help you understand how to balance it with the other dishes on the table. While preparing food in my cooking classes, I invite students to taste the food after each ingredient is added—after the fish sauce or soy sauce, after the sugar, after the lime juice. This helps them grasp what’s happening as the flavors develop.
Scroll on for the recipe for the famous Thai Fresh Coconut Soup (Tom Kha Kai)…
dairy-free, gluten-free, nut-free
- 1 can 13.5 oz. coconut milk (most brands from Thailand work but I like Aroy-D because it does not contain any preservative or additive.)
- 2 cups water or chicken stock or vegetable stock or 1 cup stock plus one cup water
- ¼ tsp. salt
- 1 teaspoon palm sugar (any brand would do or sub regular sugar. The granulated one does not work. It will have to be either the paste form in a bottle or in a hard puck form)
- 1 stalk lemongrass, outer layers removed, cut to 1 ½ inch pieces, bruised
- 1 shallot, cut in half and smashed
- 1-2 Thai chilies, smashed
- 4 slices galangal
- 2 kaffir lime leaves, torn into smaller pieces
- 1 – 1 ½ cup chicken, shrimp, beef, or fried tofu
- 2-3 cups button mushroom or oyster mushrooms, sliced or torn
for the sauce
- 3 tbsp. fish sauce (Tiparos or Squid brands are my favorites) or 2½ tbsp. soy sauce (add ½ tsp. sugar if using soy sauce. When making Thai food, make sure to buy light/thin Thai soy sauce.)
- 4 tbsp. lime juice
- 1/2 tsp minced Thai Chilies or more for spicier soup
- 1 tbsp. cilantro leaves
- In a pot, combine stock or water with coconut milk. Bring to boil. Add galangal, lemongrass, one Thai chilies, shallots, and kaffir lime leaves. Add sugar and salt.
- Simmer for a couple of minutes, and then add chicken, simmer about 2 minutes, add mushrooms. If using shrimp, add mushrooms and shrimp at the same time. If using beef, simmer at low heat for 30 minutes before adding mushrooms.
- Meanwhile, make the sauce by combining all ingredients in a bowl.
- Turn down the heat and continue to simmer until mushrooms and chicken are cooked, about 5-7 minutes more. Add prepared sauce and serve.