Thai Tom Kha Kai Soup (ต้มข่าไก่)
Tom Kha

We return to Thailand for this month's recipe and one of my favorite soups, Tom Kha. This delicious soup is a standard offering in nearly all Thai restaurants; once you gather all the proper ingredients, it is very easy to prepare.

Tom Kha is very similar to Tom Yum soup; the major difference is that Tom Kha has coconut milk making it thicker and creamier, and Tom Yum is the spicier of the two soups. Tom translates as "boiled", and "kha" is the Thai word for the ginger-like root known as galangal. Some American cooks substitute ginger for the galangal, and some recipes use both. If you use chicken in the soup, it is called Tom Kha Kai (sometimes transliterated: Tom Kha Gai), and if you use shrimp instead it is called Tom Kha Goong. The choice of which to make is yours—you can even use a white fish, and then it would be called Tom Kha Pla. And now you also know the Thai words for boiled, chicken, shrimp, fish and galangal! If you use vegetable stock and cubed tofu, you can even make a tasty vegetarian soup.

In Thailand, soup is eaten somewhat differently than the way most Americans eat soup. It is not a meal starter or appetizer; soup is served along with everything else. Thais typically use spoons rather than either chopsticks or forks, and also soup is frequently not consumed strait from the soup bowl but is, instead, spooned over rice first. Regardless of the meal, a bowl of rice is a de rigueur complement to Tom Kha. But, of course, there is nothing stopping you from enjoying Tom Kha directly from the bowl. People who live in Southern Thailand use more coconut milk in their meals compared to those who live further north, but curiously Tom Kha soup is believed to have its origins in the North and may have been introduced from Laos where the soup is also found. A primary difference between Tom Kha in Thailand is the use of coriander leaves, whereas in Laos, dill is more common.

Tom Kha requires several ingredients that are not commonly found in regular grocery stores although most Asian markets (we shop at 99 Ranch) will have them. These include galangal root, Thai chilies, lemongrass stalk, Fish sauce (Nom Pla), and Kaffir lime leaves. You can substitute regular cane sdsugar for the palm sugar in this recipe, but there is a slight difference in taste. Authentically you would leave the pieces of lemongrass, lime leaves, and galangal slices in the soup when it is served, but they are all for flavoring, not for eating directly. So either warn any guests regarding this, or remove these bits before serving. Some cooks slice the lime leaves very thinly, chop the lemongrass or grind the galangal to get around this problem, but that is not really necessary because the flavors will infuse into the soup just fine.

What you choose to be your main protein source will determine the type of stock you use. If you use chicken, use chicken stock, fish use fish stock and for tofu Tom Kha use vegetable stock. Again, a very popular version of this soup is made with shrimp and making shrimp stock couldn't be easier. To do this, it is best to buy shrimp with heads and shells. Here are the steps. 1. De-head and shell the shrimp 2. Rinse the heads and shells 3. Dry-fry the heads and shells for a minute or two turning frequently (note: in Thailand, this is not normally done but it does increase the flavor) 4. Add 2 cups water. Boil the shells for 5 minutes. Strain the broth in a strainer, pushing down on the shells to get all the liquid. A nice thing about making shrimp stock is that it is completely unnecessary to boil the shells and heads for more than 5 minutes—indeed the folks at American Test Kitchen claim that because the flavor compounds in shrimp shells and heads are so volatile, shorter is better than longer. However, many well-known chefs recommend longer boil times. Another thing to note is that in Thailand shrimp stock is normally made just from the heads and shells, whereas Western style shrimp stock cooks add onions, carrots, celery and various spices. This is not recommended for Thai soup which has its own flavor profile. If making the chicken version (as below), boiling a chicken carcass for several hours will produce the best stock.

You can use a variety of different mushrooms for Tom Kha. Sliced oyster or straw mushrooms are most commonly used, but sliced white button mushrooms are acceptable. Canned straw mushrooms can be a bit slimy. Some recipes suggest shitake mushrooms, but to my taste sensibilities they would be overpowering in this recipe and would mask the soups other subtler flavors. As they are also mild, Japanese enoki mushrooms can be used. We love King oyster mushrooms (aka King Trumpet Mushroom) in Thai curry, but the regular more pliable oyster mushrooms seem more appropriate to this soup.


  • 1 pound of chicken thighs cut into bite-sized pieces. (You can use chicken breast if you prefer)
  • 2 cups chicken stock (best without added vegetables)
  • 1 14 ounce can or 1 3/4 cups of coconut milk (try to buy the kind that is pure coconut milk without additives)
  • 2 fresh lemongrass stalks (depending on size, cut off and discard the green part and gently mash the white part).
  • 5 Kaffir Lime leaves (can substitute 1 teaspoons of lime zest or 2 teaspoons of lime juice, but the leaves are best)
  • 1/4 cup 1/8 inch sliced galangal (about 3 ounces)
  • 4 Thai chilies, bruised (more or less to your preference)
  • 3 tablespoons Nam Pla (Thai fish sauce)
  • 1 tablespoon palm sugar (or regular cane sugar)
  • 3 tablespoon fresh lime juice
  • 1/4 cup of roughly chopped cilantro leaves
  • 6 ounces of sliced oyster mushrooms, straw mushrooms, enoki mushrooms or sliced white button mushrooms


  1. In a medium pot, boil the chicken in the chicken stock for 30 minutes.
  2. Add the all of the remaining ingredients (except for the lime juice).
  3. Simmer for 10 minutes.
  4. Mix in lime juice.
  5. If desired, remove pieces of lemongrass, galangal and lime leaves.
Garnish with fresh cilantro and serve with a side dish of Jasmine rice.


Recipe by T. Johnston-O'Neill
Photo by Shari K. Johnston-O'Neill
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The Participant Observer Recipe of the Month is for Japanese Gyudon (牛丼 - literally "beef bowl") with Onsen Tamago. A beef version of "donburi", it is easy to make and checks all the boxes for a quick comfort food!


Buddhism was introduced into Japan in the 6th century. One of the early precepts of Japanese Buddhism was the prohibition of eating meet. Prior to that time, people in Japan ate wild boar, deer or domesticated pigs. In 675CE the Emperor Tenmu banned eating meat altogether. A full one thousand years later during the Edo Period (1603-1868), meat eating re-entered Japanese culture in the form of cures for various ailments. In 1852-3, just prior to the end of the Edo Period, American Commodore Matthew Perry visited Japan during a time when the country was extremely isolationist. He was ordered to force open trade with the Japanese, but the Japanese rebuffed him, biding him to return a year later to learn the Japanese official response to Perry's proposal to establish trade relations. He returned in only 6 months with 10 warships and 1600 men to force the issue under the theory of "manifest destiny". A series of missteps ensued, but on March 31, 1954, the Treaty of Kanagawa was signed, establishing trade relations. Subsequently, there was a move to re-instate the emperor to power, resulting in the Meji Restoration. Japanese warily embraced aspects of Western culture, and in 1872, it was announced that the Emperor himself had eaten beef, and there was an official campaign to promote meat eating to increase the health and physical stature of Japanese citizens (particular soldiers). It was thought this could be achieved through daily consumption of meat as was the custom in the West. Eventually a form of beef hotpot, Gyū-nabe, became quite popular in Japanese restaurants of the time. By 1877 there were nearly 600 restaurants in Toyko alone that specialized in beef dishes. Gyudon is the precursor to the more elaborate Sukiyaki, both employing a sauce made from soy sauce (shoyu), fermented rice wine (mirin), higher alcohol rice wine(sake), sugar and bonito stock (dashi). One website has dubbed the gyudon as "Japans most fool-proof dish." The dish typically employs relatively inexpensive cuts of beef (ribeye or chuck) making it a cheap meal (under $5), however, the Origami restaurant in Tokyo sells Waygu beef version using Waygu beef that costs $50 a bowl.

The first restaurant in Japan to specialize exclusively in gyudon was Yoshinyo at the Tokyo Nihonbashi fish market which began serving in 1899. It may have been the first instance of Japanese fast-food and was then called Gyumeshi (beef rice). Today, Yoshinoya operates a large chain of gyudon restaurants in Asia and the United States including several in the San Diego area. But the largest chain—over 2,000 outlets—specializing in gyudon is Sukiya, with restaurants throughout Asia, and in Brazil and Mexico.

Gyudon requires thinly sliced beef (round, ribeye or chuck). You can buy pre-cut beef for it at Asian markets, use beef sliced for Philly Cheesesteaks or slice the beef yourself. If you decide to do your own slicing, it is highly advantageous to slice partially frozen beef which will allow you to make the thinnest slices.

Onsen Tamago is a Japanese-style poached egg. "Osen" is a Japananes hot spring, but the word also refers to country hot spring spas. Traditionally "osen eggs" were cooked in the hot water from a hot spring. However, you can easily approximate them at home. Put 2 to 3 (depending on how many servings you desire) in a pot. Fill the pot with boiling water and cover for 20 minutes. If not using the eggs immediately, drop them in a bath of ice water. Some people forego poaching the egg, preferring it raw, and others like them sunny-side up. But in all cases, a runny yolk is desirable.

This recipe calls for the common Japanese fish broth known as dashi which is used in a number of different dishes including miso shiro soup. It can be made a variety of way, 1. By briefly simmering katsuobushi fish flakes and a piece of Konbu seaweed, (see the link for miso shiro below). 2. Use dashi "tea bags" (very convenient) or 3. most commonly from a packet of powered hondashi soup stock.

If you use sweet sake you might try reducing the sugar in the recipe to a teaspoon.

Beni-shoga (red pickled ginger) and Shichimi Togarahi powder can be bought in an Asian or Japanese market, although some non-specialty supermarkets have one or both. Shichi is "seven" in Japanese and Shichi-mi Togarahi is a 7-flavor blend of powdered chili, roasted and powdered orange rind, ground sansho (Japanese "pepper"), black and white sesame seeds, hemp seed, ground dry ginger, powdered nori (seaweed) and poppy seed.

Lastly, in Japan gyudon is almost always served with a bowl of Miso Shiru soup, a recipe for which can be found here.


  • 1/2 pound (225g) thinly shaved beef ribeye or chuck steak (see note)
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1/2 cup homemade dashi, or the equivalent in Hondashi (see note)
  • 1/4 cup dry sake
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon sugar, plus more to taste
  • 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced daikon (Japanese radish) - optional
  • 2 - 3 raw eggs (don't break)
  • 2 cups Japanese short grain rice
  • Beni-shoga (red pickled ginger)
  • Shichimi Togarashi mixed chili pepper powder


  1. Bring a pot of water to a boil to prepare the eggs.
  2. Place eggs (not shelled yet!) in a medium pot, fill will boiling water and cover. Set timer for 20 minutes and read note above.
  3. Prepare the rice according to package directions.
  4. Slice the onion into thin crescents.
  5. Slice the daikon into thin slices. (optional)
  6. In a medium-size pan, combine the onion, daikon, sake, soy sauce, sugar and dashi and bring to a simmer.
  7. Simmer ingredients for 5 minutes stirring frequently.
  8. Mix in the sliced beef and simmer for an additional 5 minutes, again stiff frequently.
  9. If the mixture starts to get dry, add some water or bonito stock to the pot.
  10. Add sliced ginger and cook for an additional minute. (note, adding the ginger at the end will retain its "kick".)
  11. Serve over cooked Japanese short grain rice. (makes 2 - 3 bowls)
  12. Break an onsen egg over each bowl.
  13. Garnish with Beni-shoga and a light dusting of Shichimi Togarashi powder.*


Recipe by T. Johnston-O'Neill
Photos by Shari K. Johnston-O'Neill
Some historical information summarized from Yoshoko Roots Story (Plenus "kome" Academy).
* Note: We forgot to sprinkle the Shichimi Togarshi on before we took the photos!
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The Recipe of the Month is Hawaiian Saimin, a light soup that is considered one of the signature dishes of Hawaii. With only a handful of ingredients, it is a delicious and easy-to-prepare soup for those in a hurry!

Hawaiian Saimin

The word "saimin" is a contraction of the Chinese words for "thin" and "noodle". The precise origins of saimin are in dispute, but the dish has been in existence from the early 1900s. Beginning in the 1890s sugar cane became the biggest export crop in Hawaii. The plantations that grew sugar cane were almost entirely owned or operated by Americans. At this point virulent diseases such as gonorrhea, syphilis, yaws, measles and tuberculosis, first brought to the islands by Captain Cook's sailors, laid utter waste to the Hawaiian population. But the sugar cane plantations needed laborers. By the early 20th centuries thousands of contract laborers from China, Portugal, Japan, the Philippines, Korea, Puerto Rico and Okinawa worked the plantations and most remained. There are many competing theories on the origin of saimin including that it evolved from exchanges of food items across cultural and ethnic lines, was introduced by Japanese people who longed for ramen or was a dish created by Chinese laborers and eventually spread throughout the plantations.

The earliest written mentions of saimin say that it was a dish enjoyed by plantation workers and was initially sold from mobile "saimin wagons" that were pushed from field to field and plantation to plantation. When the Hawaiian economy became more and more service-based saimin eateries moved to the towns and cities and became popular fair at schools, sporting events and movie theaters. In the 1960's entrepreneur Maurice Sullivan open 12 McDonalds restaurants in Hawaii which became immensely popular. Sullivan invited McDonalds executives, including CEO Ray Kroc to Hawaii and took them all to a humble "hole in the wall" saimin eatery and Sullivan convinced Kroc to allow him to add saimin to his franchised MacDonalds. It was the first time that any MacDonalds served local foods and saimin is still being sold at MacDonalds and is still a very popular meal. Nowadays saimin can be found in all sorts of restaurants in Hawaii and it no long exclusively associated with cheap and fast food.

Like many famous dishes, there are lots and lots of variations when it comes to saimin. The first and perhaps most important variation is in the soup stock. Many if not most recipes call for the use of the umami-rich Japanese soup base flavoring, dashi. However, there are several types of dashi that have different main ingredients. Kombu dashi is made from dried kombu seaweed. It has a mild flavor. Katsuo dashi is made from katsuobushi, dried shaving from a fermented bonito tuna which requires a months-long process to manufacture and can be found in powder or flake form. The flakes are used for a variety of Japanese dishes and, if sprinkled on soup or a plate of hot yaki-soba, the flakes will "dance". Awase, which means "mixed" in Japanese and Awase Dashi, found in powdered form, is a combination of kombu seaweed and katsuobushi fish flakes. Iriko Dashi is made from dried anchovies and shitake dashi, not surprisingly are made from shitake mushrooms. Some recipes call for using plain chicken or fish stock. This recipe uses home-made dashi, but you can substitute any of the other versions if you so like. Lastly, some claim that the original saimin broth was made from dried shrimp stock, and our broth adds this element.

Saimin is often referred to as "Hawaiian Ramen", but that is rather inaccurate. Saimin noodles, often purchased fresh rather than dried, are a straight wheat and egg noodle most similar to Chinese egg noodles. Ramen noodles are dried, curly and are made of wheat without eggs.

The two most popular protein additions to saimin are either kamaboko, a homogenous white fish cake that has a dyed-red outer surface, char-siu roast pork (which also has a dyed-red exterior) or spam which is enormously popular in Hawaii. Halved boiled eggs are popular, and some versions include wontons or sliced Japanese-style omelets. Sometimes it is topped with pieces of fried chicken.

The most popular version of saimin is a soup, but using the same ingredients except the broth, it can be prepared as a fried dish.

Asian ingredients can be found in any Asian/Chinese or Japanese grocery stores.

For more vegetables, you can add thinly sliced carrots, bok choi, spinach or cabbage.

Saimin Broth

If you wish to use dashi powder (or granules), follow package instructions. However, unless you can read Japanese, this might be a problem as some brands don't include instructions in English. Typically, the ratio of dashi to water ratio is 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of dashi powder to one cup of water, but if you don't have package instructions, you should experiment to find the right ratio so that your soup base is not too weak or too strong.

I purchased the ingredients for this recipe at 99 ranch market. Kamaboko can be found in the middle of aisle 1 (in the Clairemont Mesa store), the dried shrimp and noodles can be found in aisle 10 and the shitake mushrooms and katsuobushi and konbu can be found on aisle 7? (not sure). Bok choi and scallions can be found on the back wall of the produce section. I made my own char sui from thick-sliced pork marinaded in char sui sauce (overnight) and roasted for 1 hour at 350° F.

Broth Ingredients:
  • 8 cups of water
  • 2 pieces of kombu
  • 1 cup dried shrimp
  • 1 cup katsuobushi
  • 1/4 dried sliced shitake mushrooms
  • 1/4 cup shoyu (Japanese Soy Sauce)
  • 1 Tablespoon salt

Broth Preparation:
  • Bring water to boil
  • Add kombu, dried shrimp, katsuobushi, shitake mushrooms, soy sauce and salt
  • Simmer for 10 minutes
  • Mix in shoyu (soy sauce)
  • Lower heat to the very lowest setting and steep for an additional 30 minutes
  • With a fine strainer, strain the broth

Ingredients: (for six, broth can be refrigerated for later use if making less)

  • 8 cups of dashi stock (homemade or from dashi powder)
  • 1 pound of thin Chinese egg noodles
  • 2 Tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 Tablespoon finely grated ginger
  • 4-6 spring onions (scallions), thinly sliced
  • 4 ounces of kamaboko fish cake, sliced 1/8 inch thick
  • 4 ounces of char-sui pork, sliced 1/18 inch thick (optional)
  • 6 hard-boiled eggs cut lengthwise in half (optional)
  • 6 pieces of bok choi, roughly chopped


  1. Hard boil the eggs; let the eggs cool, shell, and slice into halves.
  2. Cut off root ends of bok choi and then slice into 1 inch lengthwise pieces.
  3. Add the dashi stock, sliced bok choi, finely grated ginger and water to a pot and bring to a low simmer for 5 minutes.
  4. Cook the noodles in a separate pot and when done add to the dashi stock along with the soy sauce.
  5. Divide noodles and stock into 6 bowls.
  6. Top with egg halves, sliced scallions, kamaboko and char-sui slices.


Recipe by T. Johnston-O'Neill
Photos by Shari K. Johnston-O'Neill
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