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. To this day, I make this dish almost every time I have guests in my house. And despite its now-clichéd existence in the Ameri-Thai iconography, its exotic nature still rings my bell every time I wolf down a bowl or two or five. There is no better recipe to define my obsession with the romance of food, internationalism, travel or, for that matter, good, solid cookery. So it’s fitting that this is my first recipe for this space.

Ask anyone today if they love Thai food, and they all say yes. The stunning complexity of Thai cuisine, studded at brief intervals with simple, elegant dishes, makes it one of the world's most popular cuisines. Ask those same devotees to name a dish, and they all say "pad thai" and then quickly add "...and that amazing chicken soup with coconut." But they have trouble recalling its name. Well, here it is: gai tom ka. At its core, this is a basic Thai recipe, and a favorite with many Asian-food fans. All the ingredients can be collected from the Asian supermarkets that are springing up everywhere. If you can't find chile-tamarind sauce, you can make your own by mixing Thai chile paste with a tamarind puree.


  • 1 lb. chicken thighs, boneless & skinless, sliced crosswise into 2-by-1/4-inch pieces
  • ¼ cup fish sauce
  • 3 cups chicken stock or low-sodium broth
  • 2 ½ tablespoons light brown sugar
  • 5 teaspoons Thai red chile paste
  • 4 teaspoons tamarind concentrate
  • 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, finely grated
  • 1 stalk lemongrass, tender inner white part only, minced (about 2 tablespoons)
  • 2 kaffir lime leaves, fresh or dried, or 1 teaspoon finely grated lime zest
  • 28 oz. coconut milk
  • ½ lb. shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and caps thinly sliced
  • ¼ cup fresh lime juice
  • 2 red or green Thai chiles, very thinly sliced on the bias
  • cup packed cilantro leaves, for garnish


1. In a medium bowl, toss the chicken with the fish sauce.
2. 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.




Andrew Zimmern


6 servings


Asian : South East Asian : Thai

preparation times

• Total Time: 35 Minutes