Idaho is no longer a "meat and potatoes" type of state: it is becoming a veritable culinary melting pot! New and interesting ethnic restaurants and grocery stores are opening up in cities around the Treasure Valley and a growing group of "new" Idahoans is introducing exciting unfamiliar ingredients, different approaches to old-fashioned foods and secret family recipes that have been handed down from one generation to the next.

This blog allows us a peek into the pots and pans of these travelers that have chosen to make Idaho their new home. It captures a compilation of stories and dishes from people who, far away from their country of birth, recreate familiar elements in the dishes they prepare. For many, food from their home country is a comfort to the soul: for some it's an important part of their cultural or religious celebrations and for others, it's just good eating!

Monday, January 4, 2010


Name: Sivinee (Bo) Carbajal
Born in: Bangkok, Thailand
In Idaho since: July 3rd, 2007

"Tom Kha Gai is one of my favorite dishes", Bo says while she peels the shallots for the soup, "it's a rich and creamy soup from the central part of Thailand where I'm from. I especially love to eat it with steamed jasmine rice."

I'm a guest at Bo's house in Meridian, where she lives with her husband and their two dogs. When I asked her to prepare a dish that reminded her of her country, she immediately said she was going to make Tom Kha Gai, a chicken soup flavored with galangal, lemon grass, kaffir leaves and coconut milk.

"Tom is a dish that is boiled or simmered such as soup, Kha is the galangal root that adds flavor and warmth and Gai is chicken. The reason why I picked this dish is because it is a soup that brings back happy memories from the place where I grew up, right outside of Bangkok. We often have ceremonies and celebrations at the Buddhist temple and, as a tight-knit community, everybody is part of those events. Huge meetings are held beforehand to decide about the decorations, the flow of the event etcetera but the biggest part of those ceremonies is the food, ofcourse. Huge quantities are prepared to share with the monks and the guests. Everybody cooks enough to make sure there are plenty of leftovers for the families back home. The older people will always cook Tom Kha Gai, so ever since I've been old enough to go to the temple and participate in the ceremonies with my family, I've eaten Tom Kha Gai."

"It's an easy dish to prepare", Bo says, "and you will be able to find most of the ingredients in the Asian stores in Boise. In Thailand, we just dig up galangal from the ground. My aunt grows lemon grass in her garden and we have a kaffir lime tree at my parent's farm from which to gather the leaves. We don't even use canned coconut milk, I would make it when helping my aunt Pao in the kitchen by peeling the coconut, shredding the flesh and then squeezing out the liquid. Now that's real coconut milk!" she laughs.

She cuts up the chicken thighs while the coconut milk is simmering on the stove. "The key is to get a balance between the different flavors. Thai cooking is really all about balance, and because most of the ingredients are fresh and come from different areas, exact measurements don't really work. You can't predict measuring out a cup of this or half a tablespoon of that because the flavor, the spiciness or the saltiness of an ingredient may be different from what you expect or what you like. There are so many variances. A recipe is for reference only. Taste often, get quality ingredients and adjust the hot-sweet-salty-sour balance to your taste. You can buy Tom Kha paste if you are in a hurry, but the flavor will not be as good as the one you make yourself from scratch. Besides, making your own gives you great ownership of the dish!"

Tom Kha Gai
3 chicken thighs
1 cup of chicken stock (or 1 cup of water and a 1/4 chicken bouillon cube)
1 can coconut milk
Warm water
1 stalk lemon grass
1 piece of galangal
3 small shallots, peeled
Juice of 1 Thai lime
1/4 cup of fish sauce
1 cup of crimini mushrooms, sliced
1/2 tablespoon of sugar
Pinch of dried chiles, optional
1 handful of kaffir lime leaves
1/4 cup of cilantro

Remove the skin from the chicken thighs and cut the meat off the bones. Place the bones in a small pan with chicken stock or water and the chicken bouillon and bring to a simmer. In the meantime, in a large pan, pour the coconut milk. Fill one half of the empty can with warm water, stir to make sure you get all the coconut cream and add it to the milk in the pan. Stir and bring to a simmer. When the chicken bones have simmered for approximately ten minutes, turn down the heat and carefully pour the broth in the large pan. Discard the bones.

Cut the chicken in bite-size pieces. Add to the simmering coconut soup. Cut the fleshy bottom part of the lemon grass, peel and slice lenghtwise. Cut into large chunks and add to the milk. Wash the galangal root and carefully cut into slices. (This is a tough root so you will need a sharp knife: be careful!). Quarter the shallots and add together with the galangal to the milky soup. Stir in the lime juice.

Add a tablespoon of fish sauce and taste. Add fish sauce one tablespoon at a time until you've accomplished a flavor you like. Now stir in the mushrooms, simmer for another ten minutes, then add the sugar. Taste again. Add the dried chiles if you like additional spice. Wash the kaffir leaves, fold them double lengthwise and tear the leaves off the hard vein. Stir the leaves in the soup, discard the stems.

Serve the soup in a large bowl with steamed rice on the side. Don't eat the galangal, kaffir leaves or lemon grass: these are only for flavoring the soup. Place a cup of rice on each plate and pour some of the broth over it, then add a couple of pieces of chicken, shallot and mushroom and enjoy your meal!