The end of winter can be one of the least-inspiring cooking seasons. Skiers call it the off-season, when there’s not enough snow to ski on, and too much mud to mountain bike on. It’s the same scene at the dinner table. We’re tired of stews, braises, and hearty roasted dishes. Give us something fresh. But the fresh hasn’t quite arrived. This, my friends, is the perfect time for Thai food. Spicy, sour, salty, sweet, tropically-inspired dishes with ingredients that can be found most months of the year. This is food to awaken the palate from a tired, brown gravy slumber.
This soup may not be much to look at– it’s kind of monochrome, like winter; but if you know Tom Kha Gai, you know that the taste is totally panoramic. It’s sweet and creamy with coconut milk, sour and aromatic with lime and lemongrass, spicy with fiery red chilies, and all brought to harmony by the salty base note of fish sauce. This is a soup that can buoy you towards spring. It’s super easy to make at home and comes together in a flash for an easy, soul-brightening weeknight meal.
It also happens to be filled with thyroid-loving goodness. Coconut, galangal (or ginger) and chilies fire up metabolism, mushrooms provide a solid dose of selenium which is a key thyroid nutrient, and cilantro helps to remove heavy metals from the body, which are damaging to the thyroid and one of the major causes of thyroid dysfunction.
Tom Kha Gai, or Thai Chicken Soup with Coconut Milk, uses some authentic Thai ingredients, which may be bad news for those of us living in little landlocked towns like Saginaw, Sheridan, or Sioux Falls. The good news is that there are substitutions for these ingredients that can be found in any grocery store. And the even better news is that I have made this soup with both authentic Thai ingredients, like lime leaves, and with common substitutions, like lime zest, with little compromise in flavor. That’s rare, but I feel it’s true in this case.
Sometimes I can find things like galangal, sometimes not. Just roll with it.
My green-thumbed husband takes care of our Makrut lime tree, so I don’t have to look far for those.
A Couple Tom Kha Gai Making Tips:
- The key to this soup, as in many Thai recipes, lies in striking the right balance between sweet, sour, spicy, and salty flavors. That balance is one of the crowning principles of Thai cuisine, and there’s no other way to reach it than to taste, taste, taste. Tweak it with a bit of extra fish sauce for salt, an extra squeeze of lime for sour, an extra pinch of sugar for sweet, or an extra hit of chilies for spice. Taste and tweak repeatedly until you find yourself wanting to taste again and again and again. That means it’s done : )
- Shrimp is a delicious and thyroid-friendly alternative to chicken in this soup, but add them towards the end of cooking, so they don’t get overcooked.
- A note regarding spice: since I’m cooking for a 4-year-old, I omit the chili paste until we’ve ladled out the soup and hubs and I can stir it into our bowls, to taste– works just fine. Sriracha has a major cult following, but if you haven’t tried it, you may prefer the more multi-dimensional flavor of Sambal Oelek. I know I do.
- I use the simmering broth to peel the tomatoes. Simply use a paring knife to cut out the core, and then slash a shallow X in the other end of the tomato. Drop into the simmering broth for about 1 minute or until the skins begin to split and peel. Remove from soup and set aside until cool enough to peel, seed, and dice. Piece a cake.
- Coconut products such as coconut milk contain healthy fats which can aid in hormone balance. Consumption of healthy fats is commonly recommended for those with thyroid issues for this reason. They are also a positive substitution for refined carbs and sugar in the diet, which can diminish thyroid health and promote an overabundance of estrogen. A word of caution: many canned foods are contaminated with BPA, which is absorbed from the plastic lining of the can. To avoid the hormonal disruption that can occur from ingesting BPA, purchase coconut milk in cans that are labeled, “BPA-free.”
- Chinese medicine suggests warming foods like ginger and chilies for the treatment of hypothyroidism because they are metabolism boosters. The powerful anti-inflammatory properties of ginger can help relieve the inflammation often associated with hypothyroidism.
- Selenium is a nutrient important to the production and regulation of thyroid hormones, and mushrooms happen to be one of the top 10 foods highest in selenium. Just one crimini mushroom provides 7% DV of selenium. I suggest using criminis in this soup because the selenium content is higher than that of button mushrooms.
- Cilantro is a detoxifying herb and helps rid the body of heavy metals like mercury. Heavy metal toxicity is among the leading causes of thyroid disease. So load up on that garnish– it’s delicious and good for your health.