“When people think of Thai food,” says Thim Potchanant, “they think of pad Thai.” The emblematic stir-fried noodle dish may be the most popular entree at Thai Papaya Cuisine, the East Side restaurant Thim owns with her husband Joe, but just as authentic — and delicious — is the hot coconut soup ($9.50).
While Westerners often confine the use of coconut to pina coladas or baked desserts, the tropical taste takes center stage in this richly aromatic soup, a traditional dish the Potchanants enjoyed growing up in Thailand. Infusing their robust flavors into the coconut milk base are the key ingredients of lemongrass, lime leaves, mushrooms, red bell peppers, lime juice, and galanga, a Thai herb related to ginger. Used for culinary and medicinal purposes in many Asian countries, galanga is an ancient remedy touted to aid digestion. Joe also points out the health benefits of lemongrass, which fights colds and the flu (and clears your sinuses to boot).
On Thai Papaya’s menu, the soup is listed as including chicken, but patrons can special-order it with shrimp, tofu, or vegetables only. “You can eat it like dinner if you have rice,” says Thim, the restaurant’s head cook since it opened in July 2008. And although coconut milk is fairly high in “good” fats, it’s much lighter than butter or cheese, which are excluded from Thai cuisine: “When you’re full, you’re comfortable,” Thim says.